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Divine Intervention

A careful rehabilitation of Richard Neutra's Arboretum—a former "drive-in church" in Orange County, Calif.—has elevated both an outdated Modernist building and an architect whose works are increasingly threatened

By Kim A. O'Connell

It's been a tough stretch lately for fans of AIA Gold Medalist Richard Neutra, the Austrian-born architect whom Time magazine called “a prophet of clean, crisp Modernism” in a 1949 cover story. In his 50-year career, which ended with his death, in 1970, Neutra designed dozens of distinctive Modern residences and public buildings primarily in Southern California.

In recent years, however, Neutra’s buildings have increasingly been threatened in one way or another, or outright demolished—such as the iconic Cyclorama building at Gettysburg, Pa., destroyed last year. In another example, officials at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., whose campus Neutra designed, are now considering demolishing several of his buildings as part of an overall campus redesign.

With this in mind, the recent restoration of Neutra’s Arboretum building on the Christ Cathedral campus in Orange County is even more remarkable. Designed in 1960 and built in 1961 as a “drive-in church” for the larger-than-life pastor Rev. Robert Schuller, Hon. AIA, it was part of his visionary Crystal Cathedral campus. In 2012 the building was acquired by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which is now restoring and converting several of the buildings for Catholic worship and ministries. For the Arboretum, the diocese immediately sought to restore features that had been lost to time, while upgrading the windows and mechanical systems, and making the site accessible. Working closely with the diocese, the restoration team consisted of LPA, Inc. (architects), Cannon Building (general contractor), and Davis Partners/Hager Pacific Properties (construction managers), with Lamprecht archiTEXTural as architectural researchers/historian.

In March, the project was awarded a Design Citation of Merit by DOCOMOMO US, as one of its inaugural Modernism in America awards given at its annual conference. "Preservation of Modern buildings is fraught with disappointment,” says LPA Principal Jim Wirick, AIA, “but we can celebrate the victories.”

Reclaiming a leadership role

When he envisioned a new campus for his ministries, Schuller wanted only the nation's best architects on the job—names like Neutra, Philip Johnson, and Richard Meier, FAIA, who all went on to design buildings for the 34-acre campus. Schuller had already garnered a following by preaching from the tarpaper roof of the Orange Drive-In Theater as worshipers sat in their cars—his motto was “Come as you are in the family car.” He would later become famous in 1970 for founding the Hour of Power televangelism program, broadcast from Johnson’s mammoth Crystal Cathedral. For his commitment to architecture, Schuller was named an honorary member of the AIA in 2003.

For the 22,000-square-foot Arboretum, then known as the Garden Grove Community Church, legend has it that Schuller marched into Neutra’s office and asked him, “Why should I select you to build my church?” After convincing him, Neutra designed a building that would accommodate both a more typical indoor sanctuary as well as an outdoor one where the people could drive up in their cars. The rectangular building features floor-to-ceiling windows laid out in a vertical pattern divided by steel beams, offset by the strong horizontality of the overhanging, slightly canted shed roof. A prominent balcony on one corner of the east-facing side allowed Schuller to step out from his indoor pulpit to preach to the devout waiting behind their steering wheels.

For the rehabilitation, the team had less than a year from the time the diocese acquired the building, in 2012, to its planned reopening for worship, so the work emphasized efficiency and faithfulness to Neutra’s original design. During the project, Wirick says, whereas some people might have asked “WWJD” (“What would Jesus do?”), the restoration team used “WWRD” as a guiding principle—“What would Richard do?”

“We decided that we would set the bar very high with the Arboretum, so it would guide the balance of the work on the campus,” says Rob Neal, managing partner of Hager Pacific Properties and chair of the architectural and renovations committee for the Crystal Cathedral campus, which plans to refurbish all the other campus properties as well—including the 13-story Tower of Hope, also designed by Neutra and his son, Dion Neutra, AIA. “We wanted to tell the story in the Catholic church that we were reclaiming a leadership role in art and architecture,” Neal says. “We wanted to show people that the church could be cutting edge.”

One of the primary goals was to retrofit the space for air conditioning, which the building had never had. The building had so much glass and solar heat gain that parishioners fanned themselves constantly and wore sunglasses inside. Employing an integrated design approach, the team conceived of and installed an underfloor air distribution system that would avoid roof-mounted equipment, and ventilation systems that would impact the building's spare rectilinear appearance. The team also replaced the building's 620 panes of single-paned glass, which were vulnerable and inefficient, with more efficient dual-pane glass. Finally, the team retrofitted the building to current seismic standards, installing mammoth steel K-braces and strengthening the internal infrastructure for the new windows.

In praise of orange

While most of the new interventions at the Arboretum were meant to be hidden away, one element is meant to be seen, and from quite a distance. On one end of the building’s exterior is a large orange panel situated right above the balcony from which Schuller once preached to the outdoor congregation in their cars. Almost like an altar, the panel is meant to draw attention to the speaker and prepare one's mind for worship. It is certain that Neutra had included this orange panel in his building—the only vibrant color on the entire campus, which mostly sticks to the neutral beige hues common to Modern architecture—but at some unknown point decades ago, it had been removed and replaced with glass. Lamprecht architTEXTural’s Barbara Lamprecht, a Neutra scholar, worked with the restoration team to determine a shade of orange for a replacement panel that would be historically accurate, perhaps not the original shade—which was difficult to determine based on the scant photographic evidence—but consistent with Neutra’s vision.

“Color was—as in nature—a part of form, formal solution, and formal proportion,” Neutra once wrote, according to Lamprecht’s research. “Color was no afterthought. It was—as it is in the reality of physiological and psychosomatic experiencing—‘part and parcel.’”

Lamprecht ultimately settled on a color called “Untamed Orange” by its manufacturer, Dunn Edwards, which she described in a blog post as “a fiery orange, the kind of color that would lift the spirits on a grey and rainy Sunday morning in February, or match the color of a rising or setting sun.”

The DOCOMOMO jury, chaired by James Polshek, FAIA, of Polshek Partnership Architects (now Ennead Architects), praised the project’s “holistic approach” to the restoration—encompassing structural, aesthetic, material, and theoretical considerations. They called it “an exceptional restoration example of maintaining the original design and layout while upgrading for seismic and mechanical systems, which resulted in a renovation Neutra himself would be proud of if he were able to see his building today.”

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Neutra designed the orange panel as a way to focus attention to Robert Schuller’s “outdoor pulpit,” a balcony located just beneath it. At some unknown point after construction, the panel had been removed and replaced with glass, but has now been restored and painted a color called Untamed Orange. Image Credit: LPA, Inc., and Costea Photography, Inc.

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Formerly known as the Crystal Cathedral, the newly christened Christ Cathedral is virtually an open-air museum of Modernist architecture, with works by Richard and Dion Neutra, Philip Johnson, and Richard Meier. Image courtesy of LPA, Inc., and Costea Photography, Inc.

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The natural world was an essential aspect of Neutra’s architecture, which he distilled in a philosophy he called “biorealism,” which he described as “the inherent and inseparable relationship between man and nature.” Image courtesy of LPA, Inc., and Costea Photography, Inc.

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The interior of the Arboretum. Image courtesy of LPA, Inc., and Costea Photography, Inc.

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This 1962 image shows the orientation of parked cars toward Rev. Schuller’s outdoor pulpit, as well as the speaker stands that allowed the sermon to be broadcast clearly. Neutra’s orange panel is still in place in this image, on the right side of the photograph. Image courtesy of Robert J. Boser, EditorASC.

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