From Meetinghouse to House of God
  • Friday, January 27, 2012

By Matthew Alderman

In a 1962 essay, “Architectural Seriousness,” Lance Wright outlined three marks of architectural modernity: “the sense of the provisional, the sense of economy, and the sense of the continuing nature of space.” A scholarly friend of mine once commented that in plain English this means today’s buildings are defined by “impermanence, cheapness, and emptiness.”

The recent decision by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange to purchase the Crystal Cathedral for an apparently reasonable $57.5 million suggests the criterion of “economy” can only be applied flexibly here, but the building remains haunted by an empty impermanence.

As Voltaire or Saturday Night Live’s Linda Richman might say, the iconic Crystal Cathedral is neither made of crystal nor presently a cathedral. Nor does it have much in the way of icons. There is a difference between a meetinghouse, an auditorium built for preaching, and a true church, with its sacramental character. The Crystal Cathedral stands solidly in this tradition: minimally ornamented, eschewing a processional layout in favor of a prominent, stagelike pulpit.

Yet, even if it is rooted in a tradition, it is nonetheless a modernistic structure. It rejects stylistic organic continuity with the past save for superficial touches such as a pseudo-Gothic belfry. Its glass envelope exemplifies Wright’s “sense of the continuing nature of space” inside and out. The sole ornament of the interior is exterior light; the exterior decorative scheme is reflected grass and sky. This is perfect for a pantheist, but for a sacramental Christian it is troubling.

It is as if modern architecture itself is skeptical of its ability to communicate a coherent message. Compare this with the original “crystal cathedrals” of Chartres and Rheims, bristling with stone saints, and where stained glass broke white light into a rainbow of biblical stories, martyrdoms, and allegories.

But the die has been cast, and the diocese plans to rehabilitate the interior “so it will be suitable for a Catholic place of worship.” Can this be achieved, and how?

While I am a booster for new traditional architecture, I often caution prospective renovators that they will not be able to turn their suburban St. AstroTurf’s into Westminster Abbey unless they are prepared to use a bulldozer. While traditional styles can often be mixed within historic interiors, the modernistic movement was such a destructive act of self-exile that great care must be used when adding traditional elements to a dated modernistic interior. Plopping down a Gothic altarpiece into a 1968 vintage ecclesiastical wigwam usually just makes the wigwam look worse.

Instead, renovators must coax out whatever small bit of potential might be present in embryonic form in an existing modernistic church. Hybrid or transitional styles which straddle the line between architectural modernism and traditional culture are useful here, as they allow a degree of iconographic reverse engineering.

My sketches for this article are inspired by late art deco examples such as the 1959 Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, Maryland, and Sir Basils pence’s explicitly modernistic 1962 Coventry Cathedral, a landmark of midcentury modern design. Coventry is a particularly useful example, as it contains a fairly extensive iconographic program. These models can only be taken so far: the Crystal Cathedral is so far from conventional norms as to effectively have no walls or even any true interior space.

Liturgically, the building must be transformed from an auditorium into a church. The structure is laid out on a cruciform plan, but its principal axis lies within the short “transept” arms. The interior should be reoriented to follow the long axis to give a sense of procession. Sufficient space should be found for the sanctuary to avoid the broad, shallow appearance of a stage. The theatre-like upper balconies should be played down visually. The old choir platform and pulpit area in one transept should be screened off to form a raised choir area; below, there would be space for a daily Mass chapel, shrines, and a baptistery — the little devotional nooks and crannies that usually give so much life to a cathedral, and which have no place in a meetinghouse.

This action will also serve to create an explicitly defined nave, which in turn will lead the eye more easily toward the chancel. A large, straightforward retablo will do much to terminate the processional axis; thes pace behind could be converted into an adoration chapel or sacristy space. A baldachin in a spare modern style might also be suitable. The altar should be prominent, raised, and of a noble material. Other liturgical fittings such as clergy stalls and the bishop’s cathedra should be designed to create a high implied sill below the church’s glass walls, transforming the interior from a glass envelope to a discrete space. Further definition can be achieved by a “ceiling” of colorful translucent hangings to mediate between the exterior glass and the interior.

The diocese has said it does not plan to alter the exterior. Admitted, there is even less potential here for modification than within but some slight additions are necessary to give it a measure of symbolic identity. The accompanying illustration suggests adding a solid base running around the structure, allowing for the addition of sacristies and other support volumes, and a limited amount of statuary. A prominent cross and spire would top the carillon tower.

This is the bare minimum of work necessary to create a liturgical environment here. A stronger result might have been achieved had a new cathedral been built from the ground up in an authentic traditional style. It is nonetheless my hope that these suggestions illustrate how an organic liturgical ethos can be incorporated into any forthcoming renovation of the Crystal Cathedral.

Matthew Alderman is the founder of Matthew Alderman Studios, specializing in church furnishing design, design consulting, and professional illustration. He frequently writes and lectures on ecclesiastical art and architecture.

Crystal Cathedral

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