Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Another Regrettable Cathedral for California?

When I told my father that the Diocese of Orange had announced its plans to explore buying the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, his response was, "What for? Vestment storage?" It is perhaps too early in the game to read too much into this development, but this news throws into high relief the singular state of cathedral-building in the United States at present. As I have noted in the past, we live in an age of cathedral-building. In California, Oakland and Los Angeles have all raised new cathedrals in recent years, and Sacramento has renovated its cathedral. Yet, Our Lady of the Angels has become a sort of shorthand for high costs and lugubriuous design, and while Christ the Light displays a number of hearteningly traditional features, it is also not without difficulties. (Credit where credit's due, though: the largely unnoticed 2003-2005 renovation in Sacramento, at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, was quite successful.) However, what strikes the mind in any discussion of converting the Crystal Cathedral, a Protestant megachurch designed by postmodernist Philip "Glass House" Johnson and constructed 1977-1980 at a cost for $18 million, is not the ugliness or worthiness of the architecture, but that it has precious little architecture at all. It is, as these sorts of things go, not a particularly ugly structure, but it is not so much a building as a sort of glazed envelope, a type of structure which seems to me to express not the idea that architecture can communicate in symbol and sign, but a sort of artistic agnosticism (or even gnosticism) that abdicates any attempt to communicate its message in all but the most abstract of manners.

There have been plans for over a decade to build a new cathedral for the diocese; it is thought that retrofitting the auditorium-style preaching hall for the sacred liturgy would cost about half the $100 million estimated to build the cathedral. While such financial considerations ought to be considered, I suspect a good part of that price-tag has to do with the underground car-parks, support structures and other secondary elements that have become, it would seem, indispensible, for a modern cathedral, and most of which are at best distractions and at most burdens. Such things ought to be added later, as time and budget allows. Other cost-cutting measures suggest themselves: while traditional ornament can be pricey, it cannot be any more expensive than the sort of elaborate engineering that also seems to come along with any contemporary structure; and mosaics and paintings can always be added later. (There is also the possibility, as one commenter I read elsewhere suggested, that the diocese would use the property for something other than divine worship, but I have yet to see anything in the reportage that backs this up. Indeed, the official statement released by the diocese unambiguously states, in explaining the logic behind the bid, "The Diocese of Orange does not currently have an adequate cathedral to meet the needs of its 1.2 million Catholics in Orange County, the 11th largest diocese in the nation.")

However much money is poured into the project, the building will be resistant to Catholicization because it is not a church in the Catholic sense, but a large meeting-house. It is possible to convert a temple, the place of propitiatory sacrifice to pagan deities, to the home of the expiatory sacrifice of the Mass, but it is much less easy to turn an auditorium, with its relentless emphasis on sight-lines and open plan, into a cathedral. A cathedral is far more than a preaching-house or even a "Mass-factory" as some have become, to the detriment of all the other liturgies. This is not the Pantheon or even the Parthenon, a noble pagan building nonetheless crying out for baptism, but a glitzy exercise in showbusiness-style American popular religion.

Whatever the good intentions of its builders (which I do not doubt), it presents an image of the Christian religion that is simultaneously showy and bland. From some angles, it has the utilitarian structure-by-the-yard quality of an overscaled mall food court. It is interesting that the massive raised platform-chancel of the Crystal Cathedral with its center-stage choir, organ and enormous podium seems to me to be a far more isolating and hierarchical structure than any altar rail or deep sanctuary--coupling theatricality with a strange sort of chilly distance.

A converted Crystal Cathedral would be an immense glass shed with a lot of Catholic objets-d'art strewn around it like a sort of museum, rather than integrated into the fabric--another problem it would share with the notably glassy Oakland Cathedral, though it at least had a sense of processional space and was designed to accommodate the liturgy. Even if these difficulties were overcome, though, the result would be a liturgy celebrated in a relentlessly open space--one both broad and tall, where there is no nook or cranny for private prayer, no ceiling to fill with painted angels or even shield the eye from the glare, or even a pillar to sit quietly behind and watch the mass. There is nowhere to hide and be alone with God. Even Los Angeles cathedral has side-chapels.

A lofty, narrow interior, Gothic arches or Byzantine domes, pulls the soul up with it to heaven, or brings God down to earth, but in those few times when I have been in a church which is both broad and high, I have had the uncanny sensation that I was about to be squashed like an insect. The glass will not help to lighten this sense of oppression--and perhaps will only make matters worse. The most striking churches are those with an interplay of light and darkness, and not relentless light. Even Sainte-Chapelle has its enormous windows dimmed a little with the rich tints of stained glass, and the point of Gothic is not pure, unfiltered light, but that the light passes through the colored pictures telling the story of Salvation, just as Christ passed into the world and redeemed matter.

The church-meetinghouse dichotomy is important to recall here. I was recently in Boston, where I drove past Saint Clement's in Back Bay, a Catholic parish and Eucharistic shrine housed in a remarkably handsome neo-Gothic structure that had once been, of all things, a Universalist church building. Even allowing for the hallowing grace of the reserved Sacrament and the addition of proper liturgical furnishings, when the church was first built, it must have been the most Catholic-looking Universalist church ever conceived. That it, and sundry other churches for "low" or even non-liturgical denominations erected in the first half of the last century, was built on essentially (if perhaps subconsciously) Catholic lines, show just how deeply at the time the entire religio-architectural community had embraced the liturgical model of worship, whether or not one believed in its theological ramifications. At the very least, whatever the reasoning behind such constructions, it represented a real, if once again subconscious, grasping for something more, courtesy the ministry of art.

It is important to recall that not fifty years earlier, it was the clapboard preaching-hall and not the Gothic church which was the archetypal "house of worship" in the American mind, and more robust flights of Puginesque fantasy such as Richardson's Trinity Church felt uncomfortably Papist by comparison. Today, by comparison, the pendulum has swung back the other way (oddly enough, due not to Evangelical resurgence but a Catholic failure of nerve) and everything looks not just like a meeting-house but a theater, or even worse, a "lifestyle center" buried under the accumulated weight of parish offices, youth cafes, education centers, social halls, gathering spaces, and all the functions that, in the good old bad days, could be crammed into the church basement.

$50 million may be less than $100 million, and such a takeover might, as in the words of the diocesan bishop, "prevent the loss of [the Crystal Cathedral's] important Christian Ministry," but it is still a high price-tag for what is essentially an ill-fitting yet costly suit of clothes. I would be very surprised if some enterprising classical architect could not work out a brand-new church on a $50 million budget if necessary. We architectural traditionalists tend to be beggars rather than choosers, a necessity which has become a virtue. In an age when talented Catholic architects, whatever their style of choice, could use the work, and turn, it is a shame that something as important and rare as a new cathedral church should be reduced to an expensive stopgap. Better to wait a few years and do it properly.

(Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

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