Crystal Cathedral

Dazzling, transparent, airier than mere air, glass the diaphonous dream material that has lured architects for half a century. Even King Solomon's Old Testament temple of gold and water embodied the glass vision before the material was born.

Still, it took a television preacher and Philip Johnson, the architect, to construct their ecclesiastical starship in the medium, just off a Los Angeles freeway.

The Crystal Cathedral, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller's Garden Grove Community Church, is a floating glass palace grounded in an asphalt parking lot. It is a bejeweled, 207X425-foot, $18 million building just down the road from Disneyland.

Fashioned for electronics as much as ecclesiastics, the building has sound studios in the basement, the old 14-story Richard Neutra office tower out one door, and a space for drive-in workshipers out the other.

For all the irony in this mix of the ancient and lyrical with the high-tech trappings of the "Hour of Power" congregation, the Late Modernist structure has become a favorite of both tourists and worshipers. Architectural professionals have called it "the most generally celebrated building of the past year."

The colossus in Orange County, then, is, at the least, "in sync" with its time and place.

The interior space is awesome, if hardly what convention calls divine.

Entering its overwhelming geometries beneath a 128-foot ceiling does not somehow dwarf the visitor. The structure is, well, crystal clear. It offers an outlook on the California sky rather than the megalithic dimming of the sense of self that our urban glass office buildings bring.

Here is a cathedral of light rather than a cathedral in the ordinary sense; a tent rather than a place of mysticism or magic.

If the steel latticework of Johnson's white structure creates an atmosphere of the garden, rather than the shrine, at least it does not suggest a sports arena.

More to the point, the huge structure parallels its client's wish for a place that symbolizes the open and expensive elements of religion these days.

Even the agreeable but not unusual furnishings -- 2,989 oak seats, rose granite altar, white concrete walls, and center-aisle fountain -- do not detract from the crisp-clean atmosphere inside. One looks at the winging balconies rather than such detritus as the dangling Mylar stars ($5,000 per star from donors).

Not surprisingly for an of-the-minute enterprises, this place was indeed mindful of technology: The reflective glass and ventilating panels were engineered so that, on a recent warm midday, the building was kept cool.

The sound does not fare so well, however. The congregation's defense of the acoustical system as a "European cathedral sound" has some validity, but problems persist.

As for the exterior, poetry may lie within the glass medium, making its dusktime surface "like the sky whose stars from constellations," as Rosemarie Haag Bletter puts it in her fine "Interpretation of the Glass Dream," which appears in the March issue of the Society of Architectural Historians Journal.

But this is no Miesian (Mies van der Rohe) skyscrapper on the Garden Grove landscape.

The structure may not intrude on this sprawling landscape the way some glass- sided building jar in more urban areas, but it is not a graceful presence from the outside.

The palace more settles on, than rises off, its landscape. The landscapping itself looks like bite-size green carpeting, the exterior trees like the paper shrubs of an architect's model, and the inner foliage like toys. Finally, the entryway for churchgoers seems more like a suburban mall for shoppers than the entry to a house of prayer.

Perhaps this, too, is only consonant with the time and place and religious responsibility that lives for private, not public, graces, and a religion concerned most with broadcasting by the airwaves from within a building of glass.

Nonetheless, this is an architecture meant to stir the senses and, despite its flaws, it is stirring, indeed.

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