Before the Garden Grove Cathedral existed a small “drive-in church”, founded by Rev. Robert Schuller and his wife, in Garden Grove, California. This drive-in replicated that of a drive-in movie: lots of space for parked cars and a projector screen in the front. The popularity of these services increased as word was spread. However, as the local congregation grew to be near 10,000, it was necessary to build a new church to house all of these people In 1970, Schuller approached architect Philip Johnson, asking him if he would build a larger structure, with a desire to hold on to the idea of a drive-in. This goal was the cause of the resulting materials used in construction as well as the layout of the church. The product of this goal resulted in the “Crystal Cathedral” by Johnson and his partner, John Burgee. The construction of the Garden Grove cathedral was completed and opened to the public in 1980.
The Crystal Cathedral towers over many of its surrounding buildings. Though it is massive in height and span, its visual weight is deceiving. This church is made out of silver colored glass, which is pieced together by steel trusses. This glass is what allows for the deceiving “lightness” of the structure. It also supports the idea of a “drive-in”. Being able to see to the outside from the interior creates a seamless-ness. So while people are worshipping inside, they actually feel like they’re outside, back in the historic “drive-in” service. The layout is also crucial to enforce religious beliefs. Like most churches and cathedrals, the Crystal Cathedral provides a modified version of porch, court and hearth. The outside lawn is the porch. From this lawn, people enter the cathedral, transitioning from a public place to somewhere more private: the court. The hearth is specified by the massive wooden structure, which is a backdrop for the altar, where the most important person (the priest) gives his sermons. Also like many cathedrals in history, light is a crucial element in design. Johnson uses a complete façade of glass, and though it may or may not have been intentional, the entrance and exit of light throughout the space is what creates a “sacred space”. Further supporting the idea of a drive-in, doors behind the pulpit also open to allow sunlight as well as breezes into the space. The structure system could be compared to that of the postmodern era, as Johnson does not try to disguise the structural elements of the building, but instead, exposes the steel and glass so that light can protrude through.
The Crystal Cathedral is one building. It is a unified whole. Its parts consist of its commodity, firmness and delight. First, it accommodates the amount of people in the church congregation, and then those who travel to this church from all over the world to participate in the “Hour of Power”. It accommodates its intended function of religious worship and entertainment, providing a space for religious service. Its structure is extremely firm, as I spoke of before. The manipulative trusses make the expanded ceiling possible, while the columns provide for withstanding of earthquakes and high winds. The structural organization also has a hierarchy to it. At the front point of the church stands the altar and pulpit. This is the hearth of the church, where the most important person stands, or where the most important people sing. Then comes the court, where the people sit. The people are also given importance in this space as seating spans the entire width of the church. Last but not least, this cathedral provides delight in its appearance. It is illuminated, like the heavens, to create an extreme effect of worship upon those inside. It is also delightful in its unique difference from a typical church. The light gives the cathedral a sense of life that could not be achieved in an enclosed church, and the use of natural materials such as wood and marble achieve the virtual idea of being outside, while actually still inside.
What strikes me about The Crystal Cathedral is its ability to follow all the preconceived ideas of a religious space, but also suggest new ideas. If someone were to look at this building, he would not guess that it were a cathedral. He might be close in thinking it was a place of entertainment, but without seeing the large cross in the tower next to it, it is impossible to identify. It clearly pulls away from the traditional religious spaces that we have studied in history by obtaining many dualities. First, I will suggest that it has both transparent and opaque qualities. The building itself is transparent in that you can see right through it. However, it is opaque in a sense that it is unidentifiable as a religious building. This is due to the switch from traditional stone, as seen in the Gothic era, to glass. Its theme also contradicts the purpose it serves in temporary versus permanent. The idea of a drive-in is somewhat of a temporary idea. It only serves its purpose as a drive-in when there are people parked. However, a cathedral is quite permanent. It’s not something you can pack up. It requires much more thought and intention.
I have complete faith that this structure that breaks the rules will have an extreme impact on other spaces. I think this abstract worship space will give way to the rise of many other contemporary cathedrals across the country, if not the world. Take the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland for example. It is also a massive structure that rejects the idea of stone in a religious building. It, too, uses projection of images on the lengthy walls. Being that it is placed next to commercial buildings, its purpose is disguised. Some may argue that this huge structure takes away from the religious tradition. However, a religion is a religion despite the place where it is worshipped. I think the Crystal Cathedral provides the community with new ideas about how to design spaces for the public, and I know this building will become a prototype for those in the future.