The Crystal Cathedral
Robert H. Schuller was a true patron of modern architecture.
He began with a drive-in church designed by Richard Neutra just three miles from Disneyland. Over time, he added a massive telegenic cathedral by Philip Johnson and a shimmering, cylindrical “hospitality center,” with an auditorium and cafe, by Richard Meier.
Robert H. Schuller, the evangelist who died Thursday at age 88, doesn’t just belong on any shortlist of Southern California’s major architectural patrons.
His long infatuation with highprofile architects — “There’s a place for monuments,” he told The Times in 1980, adding that “if the monument can be an instrument, you’ve got a winner” — produced something quite rare: a collection of buildings that has something important to say about the evolution of both modern architecture and Orange County.
When the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange bought the campus in 2011 for $57.5 million, changing the name of Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral to Christ Cathedral, it also acquired a property that, thanks to Schuller’s patronage, is much more of a place — an architectural ensemble — than most realize.
Perhaps only on L.A.’s Bunker Hill, where buildings by Isozaki, Gehry, Becket, Prix and Moneo line up, can Southern Californians get such an education in the architecture of the last half-century.
Before he hired Neutra in 1959, Schuller and his wife, Arvella, conducted services from a drive-in movie theater in Orange. He preached while standing on the roof of the concession stand.
When it was time to expand, on a 10-acre parcel in nearby Garden Grove, Schuller asked the architect, then 67 and nearing the end of his career, to produce a new building that would retain key elements of that drive-in ministry.
Neutra designed a long, low, flat-roofed church with huge movable glass walls that allowed Schuller to be seen and heard by those inside as well as in the parking lot, sitting in what the minister called the “pews from Detroit.”
Neutra’s son Dion, also an architect, added a 15-story “Tower of Hope” in 1967 that, in the words of architectural historian Thomas Hines, “was more prominent than anything on the Orange County landscape except the nearby Matterhorn at Disneyland.”
A little more than a decade later, Schuller wanted to expand again. He turned to Johnson and his design partner John Burgee, who at a cost of just under $20 million produced a huge room under a faceted glass ceiling. Finished in 1980, it was a cathedral designed, as Neutra’s building had been, with an eye toward multiple audiences — including television viewers sitting at home.
There was more than a touch of futurism in the televised images of Johnson’s glittering and transparent monument. As architect Charles Moore put it in his 1984 book on Southern California, the first guide to take Orange County architecture seriously, Schuller “wanted a church embedded in nature, a bit recollective of the Garden of Eden. What he got is a church that might seem rather more at home in outer space.”
Johnson waited a few years before adding a spire, giving Schuller, who spent money at the kind of clip that thrills architects and keeps church accountants up at night, time to figure out how to pay for it.
Meier’s addition to this collection of churches, spires and parking lots came in 2003. The cylindrical four-story building, wrapped in embossed stainless-steel panels and officially called the International Center for Possibility Thinking, was a shinier version of Meier’s pavilions at the Getty Center, completed six years before.
Meier’s design managed to bring all of Schuller’s landmarks into a cohesive whole. And it did so by banishing the car, which had been so central to Schuller’s vision of an expansive ministry, in favor of the pedestrian, and trading the suburban design cues of Neutra and Johnson for a more civic, even urban idea of collective space.
The buildings now consider one another across a carefully proportioned courtyard. The Neutra and Johnson designs, meant to serve an atomized region connected by freeways, suddenly have something to say about community.
LONGTIME GOAL Schuller, here in 1967, said he knew he wanted to be a pastor at age 4 after his missionary uncle returned rom China and predicted it was his destiny. Each day for the next 20 years, he prayed to become a pastor.
INSIDE OR OUTSIDE The Arboretum at the Garden Grove Community Church in the early 1960s, where worshipers
could walk in or drive in. In photo at left, Schuller in the Crystal Cathedral.
DRIVE-IN RELIGIOUS SERVICE As Schuller’s church had no place for worship, he rented a drive-in theater, here in 1957. Congregants often arrived in pajamas and listened to the service through speakers clipped to car windows.
FINANCIAL WOES Emerging from bankruptcy court in 2012 are Schuller and
wife Arvella. Behind them is daughter Carol Milner.
TRANSITION Schuller announces in 2006 that he’s tepping down. At his side is son Robert.