Thursday, October 09, 2014

Christ on the Flat Screen: The Renovation of the Crystal Cathedral, Orange, California

Some time ago, as part of the media buzz surrounding the purchase of the Crystal Cathedral, the Catholic Diocese of Orange opened the floor to online suggestions as to what the new church should be named. I offered that it should be titled the Cathedral of the Transfiguration; after all, the feast of the Transfiguration is traditionally the patronal festival for churches dedicated to Our Lord, and its suggestions of illumination, splendor, and above all, a glimpse of Heaven afforded through physical change, seemed perfectly suited to the project, even not without a bit of reverent wit. The name chosen, of course, was the blunter Christ Cathedral, direct but falling rather oddly on the ear--the Anglophile in me senses it is missing a Church in between Christ and Cathedral--and lacking the elusive specificity of the incandescent mystery of Mount Tabor.

One name conjures up Moses and Elijah, and a foolish, sprawling Peter, the painter Raphael, the siege of Belgrade and Calixtus III; an entire stained glass window filled with little colored scenes, all purple and scarlet, ranged round an explosive and nuclear bloom of gold and white. The visual image presented by Christ Cathedral, by comparison, seems rather transparent, and oddly incomplete: not particularly specific, and universal only in its vagueness. I couldn't help returning to this contrast when I began to review the designs for the renovated church by Johnson Fain and Ross Clementi Hale Studios released at the end of last month. One longs for a bit of color, or even a speck of good Christian dirt in the glacial interior.

As I commented in an article written for The Living Church some years ago (which, I understand, the renovation committee read with great interest), the project of Catholicizing the Crystal Cathedral is a daunting and perhaps even quixotic one. For the amount of money going into the project, one could have probably built a cathedral in a more traditional style, without much difficulty. The structure, with its all-glass walls, combines both a postmodern skepticism about man’s ability to describe the Divine, barring vague appeals to colorless light and nature, with TV-studio televangelist glitz and a lingering bit of Calvinist iconophobia. Rocky ground, indeed. While adding the life and vigor of a true Cathedral to this space would have been difficult, it would not have been impossible; indeed, while the building would never be a Chartres or a Beauvais, it could have easily been a brighter, more luminous Coventry, its enormous glass walls shielded by translucent banners and curtains, the entire interior focusing on an immense mosaic (modern in style, but traditional in content) of Christ in majesty--or better yet, a stained-glass window. Room could have been found in the various vestibules and balconies for those dark chapeled crannies where prayer comes so easily, and which might have, in time, become the seats of confraternities and Catholic guilds. Perhaps even the strange lack of boundaries between outside and inside that so characterize the space could have been an asset, transforming the interior into a sort of liturgical Field of the Cloth of Gold. All this could have been accomplished without even necessarily going much against the grain of the modern interior.

However, the result is more of the same, in the end. The design lacks the aggressive ugliness of the churches of the ’60s and ’70s, but this is replaced with the chill, uninviting perfection of an Apple Store. It is curious today that, despite living in an almost aggressively visual age--and one which has taken interconnectivity to new levels via hypertext--that our church buildings seem so afraid of imagery, and instead settle for a crisp lowest common denominator. The chaos of the Internet, with its mixed-bag garden of Earthly Delights, would suggest that only an interior of Baroque physicality or Gothic majesty could counterweight such enticements. Instead, we have only a surpassing coldness in spaces such as the baptistery, with its cruciform immersion font, or the low-ceilinged Eucharistic Chapel. There are a few interesting moments here--the suggestion of a mosaic dome in the baptistery, the translucent stone walls in both spaces--but on balance, the effect is institutional and rather impersonal. The curious tabernacle, in particular, is utterly divorced from any liturgical context--no altar, possibly no steps, and set in the midst of diagonal pews. The effect is a bit like a gallery installation. It is almost as if we question whether matter, the physical, can convey even the most rudimentary spiritual ideas. Christ, the God made man, who used even mud and spittle to work miracles, challenges us to think otherwise.

The principal space of the interior is also not without its idiosyncrasies. The interior is airy and open, but it is also not a little agoraphobic: is there a ‘there’ there, as was famously said of Oakland? Seen from the galleries, the effect is even more disorienting, and the altar and congregation seem sunken in a sort of arena. The one bit of warmth and color, the wood grain of the enormous organ case, has been painted out, lest it distract the faithful from the altar--though the logical solution to that would have been to emphasize the altar with a more elaborate canopy or even a proper altarpiece. And where are the icons? One sees a cross hung over the altar, some timid monochrome reliefs in the nave (if one may call it that), and a decontextualized copy of a Byzantine mosaic of Christ in the narthex, cropped and mounted on the wall in such a way one cannot help think of a flat screen TV; but, like the tabernacle, they seem almost like artifacts rather than objects of devotion. The altar itself, for a church that is more-or-less in the round, is elevated, of a distinguished size, and, while lacking the baldachin that would really set it apart, the large standard candlestands and hanging tester do give it a sense of presence largely lacking in most modern sanctuary layouts. The actual details and form are, once again, a bit too sharp-edged modern for my taste, but the basic layout is, all things considered, fairly sound. However, the altar has been placed on a curious catwalk-like bema that apparently runs the entire length of the interior, with the congregation seated antiphonally on either side, and the large elevated ambo balancing it at the other end. The ambo is itself rather fine in terms of height and proportion, if not location, and I was pleased to see what appears to be an Easter Candle stand to one side of it, as one sees at San Clemente in Rome.

Nonetheless, this is all admittedly a rather outré adaptation of the traditional monastic layout, which, for one thing, never envisioned the Mass lessons being read from anything other than their traditional position. Furthermore, antiphonal seating works best for the Office, and not very well at all for Mass. It is, I suppose, a great improvement on the faddish placement of the ambo behind the altar, as seen at the renovated Milwaukee Cathedral, and perhaps will put to rest in at least one cathedral the contemporary preoccupation with the celebrant being able to make eye contact with everyone all the time. It may be a bit more distracting for the laity looking at each other across the thrust of the sanctuary, and one wonders what complicated and lengthy treks altar boys, deacons and other ministers may need to make during a solemn liturgy if they need to go recover something from the sacristy.

One looks at all the renderings with a certain weariness. As has been pointed out by a number of commentators, quite justly, the design could have been far more objectionable. But surely we can do better than this. Modern man, on those few occasions when he is still confronted by the Divine, seems now perpetually stunned and speechless. Rather than joining him in mute incomprehension, let us give him the words, and the Word-Made-Flesh.

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