Robert Schuller: A patron of modernist architecture

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Robert Schuller: A patron of modernist architecture
Inside the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove during a service in 1987 © Gary Ambrose / Los Angeles Times
Robert Schuller: A patron of modernist architecture
Inside the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove during a service in 1987
© Gary Ambrose / Los Angeles Times

Schuller’s infatuation with high-profile architects produced noteworthy modernist buildings in Orange County

He began with a drive-in church designed by Richard Neutra located just three miles from Disneyland. Over time he added a telegenic cathedral by Philip Johnson and a shimmering, cylindrical “hospitality center,” with an auditorium and cafe, by Richard Meier.

Robert H. Schuller, the evangelist who died Thursday at age 88, doesn’t just belong on any shortlist of Southern California’s major architectural patrons. His long infatuation with high-profile architects — “There’s a place for monuments,” he told the Times in 1980, adding that “if the monument can be an instrument, you’ve got a winner” — produced something quite rare: a collection of buildings that has something important to say about the evolution of both modern architecture and Orange County.

In fact, when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange purchased the campus in 2011 for $57.5 million, changing the name of Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral to Christ Cathedral, it was not merely buying a foothold in a county that is home to more than a million Catholics.

It also acquired a property that, thanks to Schuller’s patronage, is much more of a place – an architectural ensemble – than most people realize. Perhaps only on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles, where buildings by Isozaki, Gehry, Becket, Prix and Moneo line up side by side, can Southern Californians get such an efficient education in the architecture of the last half-century.

Before he hired Neutra in 1959, Schuller and his wife, Arvella, conducted services from a drive-in movie theater in Orange. He preached while standing on the roof of the concession stand. []

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