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February 21, 2012

Transforming the Crystal Cathedral

It doesn't take a doctorate in church architecture to know why every pew in every Catholic cathedral allows worshippers to gaze toward the altar.

What happens on the altar during Mass is the heart of Catholic faith.

Meanwhile, architects that design Protestant churches make sure preachers have everyone's attention when they rise to preach. What happens in those pulpits is what matters for most Protestants.

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, on the other hand, asked the legendary architect Philip Johnson to design the world's first great church specifically built for use as a studio for televised worship.

Leaders of the Diocese of Orange will have to meditate on that fact as they work to turn the Crystal Cathedral into a spiritual home for Orange County's nearly 1.3 million Catholics, according to an architect who has published a sketch of possible changes in that structure. The diocese recently completed its $57.5 million purchase of the property.

"It would be hard to imagine a more symbolic project that this one," said Matthew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's classical design program and an architect at Cram and Ferguson Architects in Concord, Mass. The firm specializes in traditional church designs.

"What we are going to see at the Crystal Cathedral is sort of like a collision between the therapeutic American Protestantism of the television age with all of the symbolism, art and ancient traditions of the Catholic Church and its worship."

At this point, the Diocese of Orange has not taken formal steps to hire an architect and the Crystal Cathedral congregation has three years to find a new home. Acting on his own, Alderman sketched some possible changes to illustrate a piece for an Anglican periodical called The Living Church.

It would be impossible, he noted, to retroactively convert this modernist classic -- a structure so open that it seems to have no true walls or interior space -- into what most people would consider a normal, conventional cathedral.

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