Cathedrals of Glass - Architects' Guide to Glass & Metal
Architectural Insights by Chris Ward
by Chris Ward
October 16th, 2013

Cathedrals of Glass

The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., designed by Phillip Johnson in 1980, remains one of the most iconic buildings in the world. Vertical and horizontal glass attached to space frames creates a dynamic experience both interior and exterior. I can easily believe the story of Johnson taking Dr. Robert Schuller’s experience in starting the church in a drive-in theater, where everyone was outside, and replicating the experience with a totally glass enclosure. This building has since changed owners. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Orange County now owns the building and is going through a modernization. Johnson Fain Architects are working on renovation of the interior of the building. Rios Clementi has the commission for the grounds which include a Richard Meier in 2003, and Richard Neutra in 1962 and 1966.

The building is so incredible, yet receives such little attention in the architectural world.  Could this be fallout because it is a religious structure? Not sure. I am not particularly religious, yet this building exudes spirituality and a higher being. Dare I say, perhaps not of the same core or historic as the Duomo in Milan, or St. Peters in Rome, but all the same from an acolyte, one can get inspired just as easily inside the soon to be renamed Christ Cathedral.

Religious structures of late do not get enough play in the architectural press. The beautiful and iconic Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, Calif., being one great exception. This building is why we love Skidmore Owings and Merrill. They consistently do it right, and do it right by glass. The glass shell wraps the building philosophically like the Crystal Cathedral, but inside elements are added that create enclosure, end pieces in translucent glass act like focal points for the stained glass (but not stained glass) image. All throughout the structure, light punctuates the inner layers creating pin points of light in key areas of the Cathedral.

The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove does little to filter the presence of the ethos; we are always outside when inside this structure. In Oakland at Christ the Light, we are tempted with light in streams and shadow patterns. We know the ethos is always there, but we are shrouded in the comforting and warmth of the wood paneled cloaks allowing light to wash gently over us. I wonder if William Fain will explore these modalities when transforming the interior of Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Fain himself worked on it with Johnson. We wait anxiously to find out.

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