Christ Cathedral - Johnson Fain
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Christ Cathedral

Johnson Fain

Edited By Michael Webb - 5 March 2020

Christ Cathedral, the new home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County, is a triumph of transformation that infuses a glass shed with spirituality and a beauty that will beguile even non-believers.
It is a model of adaptive re-use and sustainability that rivals SOM’s ground-up Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland
(THE PLAN 034).

Forty years ago, Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed the
diamond-plan Crystal Cathedral for televangelist Robert Schuller as a stage for his ministry. In essence it was a television studio,
column-free and light-filled, with an audience of 2,000 at ground-level and in galleries. Cameras transmitted a Sunday service to millions of viewers. Scott Johnson (no relation) was an apprentice in Johnson Burgee’s New York office in the late 1970s, working on the cathedral and some of the glass-skinned corporate towers that brought the practice fame. In 2013, as the Schuller ministry crumbled, the Diocese bought the property and commissioned Johnson Fain to create a new cathedral within the old shell.

Philip Johnson made his reputation with the Glass House on his New Canaan estate, and the raked glass roof of his sculpture gallery flowered into a succession of sculptured and champfered glass towers, notably Pennzoil in Houston and PPG in Pittsburgh. The curtain walls of the cathedral, approached from a circuit of parking lots, reflect palm trees but otherwise convey no sense of place. This is the centerpiece of a sprawling religious theme park, which began with a low-slung church and 13-story tower by Richard Neutra and concluded with Richard Meier’s Visitors’ Center. The grounds, re-landscaped by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, are cluttered with kitsch statuary.

Scott Johnson welcomed the challenge of revisiting his early work, transforming spectacle to liturgy and rethinking every aspect of the interior, while leaving the exterior unchanged. He was blessed to have the support of an enlightened bishop and advisory committee, sparing him the disappointment of Rafael Moneo, whose designs for the catholic cathedral in downtown Los Angeles were compromised by plaster saints and a thicket of lamps and speakers. The only jarring note in Christ Cathedral are the three large television screens that encourage worshippers to join in the choral refrains.

The building is oriented north-south and a primary goal was to reconfigure the space for a processional mass, while making the altar the dominant feature of the cruciform plan. The east and west doors were closed, so that congregants and clergy now enter from the entry plaza to the south. Banked wedges of seating rise above the new narthex, a baptistery to the west and the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament to the east, giving each space an intimacy that contrasts dramatically with the luminous void which soars to 42 m at the peak. A massive array of organ pipes, retuned in Padua and re-clad in white lacquered millwork, rise from the organist’s loft at the north end.

Pews of dark stained oak embrace the sanctuary, where a plain stone altar, ambo and bishop’s chair are raised on a stepped predella. A suspended crucifix and baldachin are complemented by a
free-standing arch framing a scenario that evokes a traditional reredos. The pink marble paving of the old cathedral has been replaced with neutral-toned stone and the lower walls are clad in finned limestone to improve the acoustics.

These changes have grounded the cathedral, while the new roof draws the eye heavenward. Johnson Burgee glued panes of glass to the outer edges of a space frame, with louvers in a clerestory to evacuate hot air, but no protection from the sun. Scott Johnson worked with engineers to devise an inner layer of 11,000 quatrefoils to shield the church from glare and provide a thermal barrier while diffusing sound and light. Each quatrefoil comprises four triangular petals, a translucent sandwich of perforated metal, fabric and polycarbonate fabricated in Germany. A computer program calibrated the degree of openness, to block direct sun while casting a dappled pattern of light and shade over the sanctuary. Lighting is incorporated within the space frame to mimic the play of natural light off the white surfaces, creating a sparkling canopy of ghostly leaves.

Forced-air heating and cooling has been introduced and the louvers are now operated by sensors. The grandeur of the main worship space is complemented by the intimate scale of the chapel and the baptistery. Each has a recessed gilded dome, a circular pattern in the paving and a folded perforated metal screen to enclose the space. At every point the symbols of sanctity have been abstracted, from the cross axes of the plan to the cruciform font and the openings in the quatrefoils. It is a space to delight the eye and lift the spirits.

In Europe, where religion is losing its hold on the public imagination, the challenge is to find new uses for empty churches. In the US, where immigrants still cling to the faith of their ancestors, there is a burgeoning demand for new worship spaces, and Christ Cathedral points a way forward aesthetically, in contrast to the ersatz historicism of past decades.




Location: Garden Grove, California, USA - Client: Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange - Christ Cathedral - Completion Date: 2019 - Architect: Johnson Fain - Design Partner: Scott Johnson - Project Manager: Larry Ball - Project Architect: Steve Hyuk Chung
Project Designers: Jed Donaldson, Alex Pijuan - Design Team: John Gralewski, Alex Sexsmith, Corey Pope, Kristina Johnson,
Harold Ramirez, Zalatan Sehovic, Arlene Cuevas, Shahrzad Razi, Li Li, Taylor Sanderson, Christina Fujii, Edgar Lopez,
Reza Tashakori - Main Contractor: Snyder Langston



Structural: Nabih Youssef & Associates - Landscape: Rios Clementi Hale Studios - Lighting: Francis Krahe & Associates
MEP, Security, Fire Protection: Syska & Hennessy - Acoustics, AV: Idibri - Elevator: HKA - Fire, Life Safety & Code Consulting:
AON Fire Protection, STO Design Group - Façade Maintenance: Lerch Bates - Civil Engineering: TAIT & Associates
Specifications: Gary Barnett Specifications

Text by Michael Webb

Photography by Tom Bonner

All images courtesy of Johnson Fain

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