Christ Cathedral


Architects share their vision and experience on the transformation of Christ Cathedral, claiming it has been “ …an extraordinary life experience.”

By Scott Johnson FAIA     2/24/2015

In the late summer of 2013, we, at Johnson Fain, were commissioned by the Diocese of Orange to redesign the well-known Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, transforming it into Christ Cathedral, the new center of the Roman Catholic Church in the Diocese of Orange. Created more than 30 years earlier by the architect Philip Johnson as a home for Reverend Robert Schuller’s evangelical ministry, the Crystal Cathedral was recognized for its widely celebrated exterior, but the building itself required significant modification to fulfill the role of a great Catholic cathedral.

Our mandate was to honor the essence and strength of the original architecture while accommodating the rich traditions and liturgy of the Catholic Church. It was a great challenge, but an exciting design opportunity to convert an open, all-glass evangelical church so that it might serve the centuries-old sacraments, ritual processions and centrality of the Eucharist embodied in the Catholic faith. The design team elected to maintain and restore the historic shell of the 12-story structure while creating a virtually new building within the existing building.

The first step was to reconfigure the building’s three principal entries. The main entry leading to the new Narthex on the southern end will be fully glazed with the addition of two bronze pivot doors that will comprise the Bishop’s Door. The new interior plan is a cruciform, the other three extremities of which will be the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament to the north, The Baptistery to the west and the Pilgrims’ Entry and Rotunda Stair leading to the undercroft to the east. These three important spaces will be indirectly lit and glazed in translucent onyx.

At the center of the cruciform plan will be the altar, sitting atop the predella and in full view of all 2,000 seats. A large platinum-leafed baldachin and carved crucifix will be suspended above the altar with the Bishop’s Chair to the north and the Ambo to the south. Paving and interior walls will be composed primarily of silver travertine with inlays of complementary stones and select sections of dark walnut paneling to match the pews. The mezzanine level will be reconfigured to support antiphonal music in multiple configurations and the organ casework will be redesigned in opaque white glass with brushed stainless steel trim.

One of the most complex design aspects of the new Cathedral is the interior treatment of the space frame that is covered with more than 10,000 glass panes. This interior shell is at the nexus of many symbolic and technical issues. As the new stone floor and lower walls recall the earth, so the glass vault overhead recalls the heavens. To redesign these surfaces, it was necessary to address issues of acoustics, daylight and night lighting, solar heat transmission and ventilation, as well as environmental comfort and visibility. Both our standards for comfort, as well as our performance-based tools which enable us to achieve that comfort, are much advanced today over what they were three decades ago.

To recommend the best solutions, our team digitally mapped the sun’s path of travel across the building exterior and studied acoustic reverberation within the building’s volume. Based on this research, we proposed an innovative ceiling system designed as an algorithmically complex series of triangular metal sails that will be variously opened or closed based on their solar orientation. This system of “petals” on the inside surface of the space frames will modulate natural light throughout the day, reduce glare and create rich translucent patterns that will define the interior shell by day and by night.

Below the sanctuary floor and accessed by the Rotunda Stair and an elevator, the Undercroft of the Cathedral will include the Chapel of St. Kallistus, office space, vesting and support functions. Silver travertine paving will follow the stair down from entry level through the arched galleries and into the Chapel.

As architects, the design of Christ Cathedral has been an extraordinary life experience. Many of us were raised in Christian faiths, some Catholic, and our patrons have been generous with their knowledge, time and communication. We all wish to bring a unifying presence to Bishop Vann’s vision of a Cathedral open to all peoples in the heart of the most diverse community in America.