AD Classics: The Crystal Cathedral / Philip Johnson

© Flickr user Amir Nejad

The Crystal Cathedral was designed as a religious theater of sorts, acting as both television studio and stage to a congregation of 3,000. It was commissioned by renowned televangelist Robert Schuller and completed in 1980 near Los Angeles, California. Philip Johnson and John Burgee devised the glass enclosure in response to Schuller’s request that the church be open to the “sky and the surrounding world.” 

Courtesy of American Seating

The facade is composed of more than 10,000 glass panels affixed to a framework of steel trusses. The panes are single-glazed and held in place by structural silicone, reducing the visual prominence of the joints. Johnson and Burgee developed the angular, star-shaped plan to enliven the monolithic, monochromatic volume. The steel tower was also designed by Johnson and completed in 1990. It is visible across the 34-acre campus and serves as a vertical counterpart to the Cathedral.

© Flickr user Paul N.

The single, gigantic space measures 400 feet by 200 feet in length and width. The design is a modification of the typical Latin cross plan, with a shortened nave and widened transept, to bring each seat closer to the chancel. In a nod to Los Angeles car culture, the parking lot was designed for a drive-in congregation to listen to the sermon via car stereo. 90-foot-high doors beside the chancel open onto the parking lot, providing ventilation and a visual connection between attendees.

Ground Level Plan

Johnson described the project as “an independent building without setting.”1 The entrances—simple, rectangular breaks in the glass skin—are derived from function rather than context. Visitors pass beneath the opaque, concrete balconies to enter the translucent central space. The entire interior is visible beneath the soaring, 130-foot-high ceiling. The lattice of white steel forms a continuous membrane of walls and ceiling, enclosed by the transparent glass beyond. At first glance, the triangular balconies appear to rest within the steel frame, but are supported by massive columns at each vertex.

© Flickr user Paul N.

The building’s environmental mediation is arguably its greatest architectural feat. The mirrored glass transmits only eight percent light and ten percent total solar energy into the space. This allows for an entirely passive ventilation system, aside from the mechanical controls used to operate the windows. While closed, the operable windows are indistinguishable from fixed panes, preserving the continuity of the glass facade. Opened, they project like glass gills from the otherwise smooth surface.

© Wikimedia Commons user Russavia

Crystal Cathedral Ministries, formerly led by Reverend Schuller, filed for bankruptcy in 2010, claiming $50 million in debt. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange acquired the property the following year and rechristened the building “Christ Cathedral.”  Johnson Fain is overseeing the interior alterations, an effort to adapt the church for a Catholic congregation. The campus is to be remastered by Rios Clementi Hale Studios and also includes the International Center for Possibility Thinking and the Community Church building. The former was completed in 2002 by Richard Meier & Partners. The latter was designed by Richard Neutra and opened in 1961 as the first formal home to Schuller’s congregation. Work is underway to restore the building to Neutra’s original vision. 

© Flickr user OZinOH

[1] Fujii, Wayne. “GA Interview: on .” GA Document 1990: 12-18. 

Architects: Philip Johnson and John Burgee
Location: Crystal Cathedral Reformed Church, 13280 Chapman Avenue, Garden Grove, CA 92840, USA
Architect In Charge: Philip Johnson, John Burgee
Seating: American Seating Co.
Area: 32000.0 ft2
Year: 1980
Photographs: Flickr user Amir Nejad, Flickr user Paul N., Flickr user C. Strife, Flickr user siphorous, Wikimedia Commons user Russavia, Flickr user OZinOH, Courtesy of American Seating, Flickr user Ben Kraal

Cite: Jones, Rennie. "AD Classics: The Crystal Cathedral / Philip Johnson" 06 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <>