The Crys­tal Cathe­dral

Robert H. Schuller was a true pa­tron of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - CHRISTO­PHER HAWTHORNE AR­CHI­TEC­TURE CRITIC christo­pher.hawthorne@la­times.com

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.

Tony Barnard

Ray Gra­ham Los An­ge­les Times

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.

Mark Boster

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.

Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

FI­NAN­CIAL WOES Emerg­ing from bank­ruptcy court in 2012 are Schuller and

wife Arvella. Be­hind them is daugh­ter Carol Mil­ner.

Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

TRAN­SI­TION Schuller an­nounces in 2006 that he’s tep­ping down. At his side is son Robert.

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