Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Worship Buildings: Discussion on their Mysticism

The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. Picture by Myriam Mahiques

I have visited the Crystal Cathedral designed by architect Philip Johnson twice. It is located in the city of Garden Grove, California, just two miles from Disneyland. Though it bears the name of cathedral, the building itself is not imbued with a mystic spirit. Anyway, it is beautiful and impressive, it is all light in the glorification of the metallic structures. My husband, an architect too, said he does not like it very much, because it could represent any public building. I reminded him that, Philip Johnson explored the idea of ethereal walls through a complete permeability to light, but the functional program for this building, was not to create a place for prayers, but a huge TV studio.

In 1955, the Protestant broadcasting evangelist Robert H. Schuller (born September 16, 1926) preached outdoors to a flock gathered in their cars at a rented drive-in movie theater; ¨Most such churches begin by taking over a drive-in theater on Sunday morning. Minister, choir and organ perch atop the projection booth or a makeshift stage, and the sermon is piped into cars through window speakers. Among the most impressive of several new churches specially built for drive-in congregations are Schuller's Garden Grove Community Church (designed by Richard Neutra)¨ From Time. Churches: Drive in Devotion. November 3, 1967. Retrieved 2009-10-06.,9171,837478,00.html
By 1970, he was preaching to a congregation of millions gathered around of TV sets on his weekly Sunday program The Hour of Prayer. Pastor Schuller thought he could design himself a suitable spectacular TV studio, but lately he realized he needed an architect. He chose arch. Philip Johnson when he read in “Time” that Johnson was a leading famous architect. The story is not clear for me, but it seems to be the main reason for Johnson’s contract.

Inside the Crystal Cathedral. Picture by Myriam Mahiques

A great organ in the second floor of the Crystal Cathedral. See the low ceiling with the entrances, there is no transition for the change of scale, what makes it much more impressive. Picture by Myriam Mahiques

The "campanile". Picture by Janine Hannois.

Anyway, church or not, I admire this building. I felt the emotion to enter under a low ceiling, and suddenly, the discovery of the change of scale inside the great structure through which the sky is seen. It is curious for me that Christians do not include religious imaginary inside their worship buildings, but, there are allegories of Jesuschrist’s birth in statues all around in the landscape. And in spite of the lack of pictures, every year there is a great event of Christmas where real animals with actors and dancers perform “The Glory of Christmas”. The event gives us much more than images, you can even smell the animals in their absence……

“The Glory of Christmas” event at the Crystal Cathedral. From

A family picture outside the Crystal Cathedral, picture by Luis Makianich.

“The Glory of Christmas” event at the Crystal Cathedral. From
Remember the effectiveness of theatre in religious teaching. Priests in the Conquest of America used to take the advantage of theatralizations;  Indians were the performers.

Scenography for "The Glory of Christmas". Picture by Myriam Mahiques

Pastor Schuller’s methods reminded me some similar methods in the Catholic Church, institution that has always held a primary place for ornament and sacred imaginary that evoke the historical events. I’m not an expert in the subject so I will add excerpts from “A Soul for the Liturgical Space” (Un Alma para el Espacio Litúrgico) by my Italian colleague and virtual friend Architect Ciro Lomonte, who is an expert church designer, who lives and works in Palermo, Sicily. He has edited in Italian L’Architettura del Corpo Mistico. Progettare chiese secondo il Concilio Vaticano II by Steven J. Schloeder (L’Epos, Palermo 2005).

So, questions arise, are all architects qualified to design sacred places? Or, do they focus on their own personal propaganda without taking into account what the parishioners feel? Which are the consequences of modern proceedings? Let us see what arch. Lomonte writes:
¨Modern churches are not convincing. Visiting them you can perceive the difficulty contemporaries have in expressing transcendentality in works of sacred art. The faithful are forced to attend churches that are often similar to gymnasiums, garages, supermarkets, schools, or even swimming pools. Perhaps those who designed them meant to reproduce daily life situations in the places reserved for an encounter with the Trinity. However in alienating atmospheres such as these one can neither establish a relationship with God nor with men. At times only solitude is perceived here, even more here than anywhere else. And to think that the church, by now, is no longer a place where one prays, but where assemblies are held, just as in halls of Protestant worship¨………
¨So where shall we begin again? On the one hand it is necessary that buildings for worship be beautiful, on the other that they adequately perform the function for which they were designed. The two requirements are connected closely.

Let us consider in the first place the aesthetic difficulties. Decorum has been excluded on principle from the syntax of modern architecture, though it is an indispensable component in the design of Catholic churches. This is essential reason for which modern churches are unadorned, as if they had undergone a preventive iconoclastic fury. The architect’s concept of God, usually abstract, is expressed with an unjustified grandiloquence of volumes. Seemingly out-of-place images of the Holy Three, of the Madonna and of the saints are hung on the bare walls, all of which could be removed or moved without modifying their combined effect. One enters anodyne realms, without knowing where to head, since there is no particular reason why the crucifix or the tabernacle are in one place rather than in another¨……….

¨To design a church requires an understanding of the places for celebration, in particular the tribune for the proclamation of the Word of God and the ara on which the sacrifice of the Calvary is renewed. The design should begin with the altar, not its container.
From this point of view the chief responsibility for the inadequacy of modern churches lies with those who commission them¨………………..
Arch. Lomonte published some astonishing pictures of weird icons at the Church of Saint Luca in Graz, Austria, that I reproduce here with his permission:

Altar. What if the artist meant that Christ’s sacrifice can be celebrated everywhere, in open nature, for example?


Lights at the tabernacle. Does it mean Christ is everywhere in cities? Or is it a warning sign for us to decide if our soul is ”clean” enough for communion?

¨Some say that the Church has ceased to dialogue with artists for at least two centuries. This affirmation, on closer examination, is not convincing because the Liturgical Movement immediately brought about a search for new artistic forms. The trouble is that it did so in the name of an exaggerated egalitarianism, elaborating a conception of “universal space”, where all the participants and areas of ritual action have the same weight,…¨

¨One of the essential materials for architectonic composition is luminous energy. In the case of churches it possesses a precise symbolic charge. Not long ago the Pope explained it lyrically.
«It is the radiance of his transcendent mystery that is communicated to humanity. In fact, the light is outside us, we can neither grasp it nor hold on to it; yet it envelops, enlightens and warms us. God is like this, both distant and yet close, someone beyond us yet beside us, in fact willing to be with us and in us. The earth responds with a chorus of praise to the revelation of his majesty: it is a cosmic response, a prayer to which man gives voice¨…...

Light through the chapel's window. Mission of San Juan Capistrano, California.
Picture by Myriam B. Mahiques

Light through the chapel's window. Mission of San Juan Capistrano, California.
Picture by Myriam B. Mahiques

Then arch. Lomonte discusses about the advantages and disadvantages of different layout of elements that make ceremonies develop in many ways. And he also shows an interesting picture of a dancing priest. Events are also being performed inside Catholic churches.

The subject introduced here, is continued in the manifesto for
Any architect, designer, artist has the right to express him/herself. I think the real problem resides in what people perceive and comprehend, which is a delicate issue considering it’s all about religion. I am not sure if the Graz community is prepared to understand the artist’s intentions, setting aside the liturgical problem briefly exposed here. In my particular case, I have my favorite church in Buenos Aires downtown, St. Michael Archangel. And it is a dark building with sad statues inside. That is my personal selection, and I leave it to phenomenology, to what I feel when I get in contact with the building. There is a Satan church in Santa Barbara, I cannot remember the name and sorry I did not have my camera and could not find it in the web, it is a brick building with vitreaux (stained glass) mostly in red color, with dubious images, a few glasses were broken and there was a little vandal graffiti. The building is so sinister, that even before I realized it was for Satan worship, I felt the rejection in the hidden memories associated with such a construction or such a practice. So strong feelings worship places trigger in us, rejection, admiration, extasis, happiness, respect…..


Lomonte, Ciro. Un alma para el espacio litúrgico. Revista Humanitas, Santiago del Cile, n° 36, octubre-diciembre 2004
Great Buildings of the World by editors of Time. Page 68. New York, 2004

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