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Walnut Creek Magazine

Serenity Now

Mar 24, 2017 01:25PM ● By Deborah Burstyn


World-Renowned New York Architecture Firm Creates Saranap Sanctuary

By Deborah Burstyn

Iconic American architect Philip Johnson catapulted to mid-century-modern fame during the 1950s with the creation of his Glass House in posh New Canaan, Connecticut.  A few years later, Johnson’s collaboration with Mies Van Der Rohe on Manhattan’s MadMen-era Seagram’s Building cemented his reputation as a major force in modern architecture.

Alan Ritchie joined Johnson’s architecture firm in 1970 and worked on major projects with him including Trump International Hotel and Tower at 1 Central Park West in New York City, as well as televangelist Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral near Anaheim, California—now a Catholic church. When Johnson retired at in 2003 at age 96, he put Ritchie in charge. Now at age 75, Ritchie and his firm Philip Johnson Alan Ritchie remain sought after for major commissions. “I figure I have at least 20 years to go before I retire,” quipped British-born Ritchie from his New York office when we spoke by phone. “But this is a legacy practice and we seek to maintain the quality and reputation Philip Johnson established.”

At an impressive 66,000-square-feet—44,000-square-feet of which are underground—construction of the sanctuary was paid entirely with private funds Sufism Reoriented has been raising for 40 years. The organization has approximately 350 members in Walnut Creek and another 150 in Washington D.C.

How did you become involved in a project in Walnut Creek? When Sufism Reoriented first called and asked if I would be their architect, I thought the group was based in another country and the project would be overseas. But Sufism Reoriented is an American group. Their spiritual leader, Dr. Carol Weyland Connor, also has a residence in Washington D.C. where they have another congregation. When we met, Connor told me she wanted something like the museum for pre-Columbian art at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. designed by Philip Johnson. She explained the Sufisim Reoriented spiritual philosophy revolves around togetherness and circular connections. Connor requested a sanctuary designed in a circle.

I came up with this idea for domes topping circular cylinders with rooms for meetings, classes and galleries to showcase their art collection. I sketched it out in a little freehand drawing. And she was amazed that it was exactly as she had envisioned it. That is how it came about.

What was a major design challenge? Even though the building sits on a three-acre site, we could not accommodate all of their programs and provide adequate parking. So we came up with the idea for a large underground concourse below the main prayer hall. There is a spectacular commissioned piece of sculpture in gold and bronze, so it picks up the gold accents in the hall. The statue is of a person aspiring to reach up and the circular stairs wraps around it.  The statue is 38 or 39 feet high. It had to be hoisted in through the dome.

What do you like about the architecture? I like the sculptural form. It is a type of building that I call ‘habitable sculptures’— the domes are an integral part of the design with circular skylights on top. As the sun moves, it changes the light on the walls and the doors. The light changes the patterns of the shadowing. That’s very exciting to me. We were very integral in laying out the interior spaces too; shapes, forms and details of floors and columns. The building is a total whole—harmonious inside and outside, with light as a key ingredient.

What makes the project unique? The circle is a pure geometric shape. It has been used for thousands of years to symbolize completeness and togetherness.  The Sufism Reoriented philosophy is based on serenity. While there are beautifully painted murals in the lower gallery, white is the common denominator throughout down to the white marble floors.

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