Arts Post
Posted at 12:16 PM ET, 11/18/2011

Crystal Cathedral sold to Catholic Church: A look at Philip Johnson’s legacy

The Crystal Cathedral, home of the “Hour of Power” televised services, succumbed to bankruptcy and will lose its famed building. The California church will be selling its Philip Johnson-designed architectural landmark to the Catholic Church. One of the first megachurches in the country, the Crystal Cathedral revolutionized religious architecture.

The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. (Jae C. Hong - AP)

The Crystal Cathedral, completed in 1980, was designed for televangelist Robert Schuller’s congregation of more than 10,000 people. The building spans 416 feet in length, 207 feet in width and 128 feet in height, and is covered by 10,000 panes of tempered silver-tinted glass held in place by steel trusses. Doors of 90 feet in height open during services to let the morning sunlight and breeze into the church. According to the cathedral, Johnson considered the structure, designed with his partner John Burgee, to be his capolavoro, or life’s work.
Crystal Cathedral Ministries, former motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, 68, right, is shown after being baptized by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller. (AP)

The $21 million gleaming glass cathedral was controversial for its un­or­tho­dox design and embrace of television. Many congregants inside the cathedral watch the service on Jumbotron screens, and the space was designed to accommodate TV crews for the televised broadcasts. J. Francois Gabriel analyzed the design in his book “Beyond the Cube: The Architecture of Space Frames and Polyhedra”:

“The cathedral’s glass skin and structure both frame the idealized suburban Southern California context: a part of the United States that, more than most, romanticizes the benefits of civil liberties and unlimited choice. The building’s overt embrace of the television and automobile, two of the most important postwar technological influences of contemporary culture, adds ammunition to the project’s ability to accommodate an additional and, one suspects, an increasingly authentic set of myths. Its transparency and polyhedron construction connect the Crystal Cathedral to the familiar atria of malls and shopping centers.”

The Catholic Church is embracing Johnson’s architecture now, though it’s unlikely it would have commissioned a design from him at the time. His life was quite at odds with Catholic teachings — Johnson was an atheist who, according to the Architect’s Newspaper, once called himself “an artist and a whore.” Johnson was a proudly out gay man, and Robert Schuller’s church was accepting of homosexuality under his leadership. Johnson also once attempted to organize an American political party along the lines of National Socialism, after spending time in Nazi Germany.

Still, the legacy of his glass houses and skyscrapers endures. In Johnson’s obituary, Bart Barnes wrote: “By his own description, Johnson was an architectural traditionalist. But in his view, the best use of tradition was ‘to improve it, twist it and mold it to make something new of it.’ He once described architecture as ‘exuberance, like sex or taste.’ ”

Here are more images of the space:

(Jae C. Hong/AP)

(Jae C. Hong/AP)

By  |  12:16 PM ET, 11/18/2011

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