The following comes from a November 17 LA Times article by Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic:
I arrived for a news briefing a few weeks ago inside the stripped-down, renamed Christ Cathedral to find diocese media officials handing out virtual-reality headsets. What we all saw when we strapped those headsets on was a digitized version of the remade cathedral interior that is heavy, earthbound and handsome to a fault. It is a design more suggestive of the offices of a high-end law firm than the kinds of early experiments in postmodernism.
The pulpit will be replaced by an altar. The new pews, in dark walnut, will be aligned in a radial pattern. The fountain that ran through the center of the cathedral, splashing audibly until it died down just as the reverend began to speak, is already gone. New interior walls, 14 feet high, will be wrapped in fluted limestone. Other details will be in brushed stainless steel, dark bronzed steel, marble and cherry wood.
The biggest change is the proposed addition of a new fixed layer of translucent panels, each in the shape of a quatrefoil, hanging from the cathedral’s existing space-frame of white-painted steel tubes. The system is an effort to bring additional shade to a piece of architecture that was already kept from being excessively bright by the reflective mirrored-glass panels on the exterior.
What the original architect Phillip Johnson created inside the cathedral, was “a hushed, underwater atmosphere.” Going from that treatment of light to an imitation of a dark European cathedral is an impossible journey. The whole point of the building is to be a container for sunlight — muted sunlight, but sunlight nonetheless.
It’s worth remembering that the original version, soon to be covered up, is one of the great ceilings in postwar American architecture, the seemingly endless Jeffersonian grid lifted off the map and into the air and made luminous by the California sun. It was the kind of ceiling a structural engineer and a seeker of God could admire in equal measure. It was aerospace, Walt Disney, a revival tent and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London spun into one.
It’s clear that a central goal of the redesign is to bring some gravitas to the sanctuary — a sense of weight underscored by expensive and muscular materials. It’s hardly shocking that the Diocese of Orange would ask the architects to try to move in that direction. It’s also possible that the church never looked particularly deeply into the unorthodox architectural history of the cathedral when it decided to buy the compound, never truly understood what it meant as a cultural as well as religious landmark.
The reasons for the purchase, after all, would seem to have had mostly to do with demographics. Orange County represents a growth opportunity for the Catholic Church, especially among Latino and Asian parishioners, at a time of declining membership around the country; the Diocese of Orange, with 1.2 million members, is the 10th largest in the country and the second-biggest west of the Mississippi.
But it is surprising that any architect could support the idea that gravitas and the Crystal Cathedral are even the slightest bit compatible. The building has far more in common with the nearby Matterhorn at Disneyland, the Biosphere in Arizona or the domes of Buckminster Fuller than with any cathedral in Europe.