Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Walnut Creek may soon become the third city on the west coast with a building designed by the internationally renowned firm of Philip Johnson Alan Ritchie Architects, based in Manhattan.
These architects have designed the Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim and the 101 California Street building in San Francisco, as well as dozens of other high-profile structures throughout the world.
Now, Ritchie is working on a sanctuary for the 350-member Sufism Reoriented group on Boulevard Way in unincorporated Walnut Creek.
"I love this building," Ritchie said in a phone interview from New York. "I can't wait for it to be built. I think when you can express good architecture and you have a client that appreciates and enjoys it, it benefits everybody. It's small, but it could be a little jewel."
Members of the religious organization, who have been operating in a renovated former restaurant, are thrilled to have lured such a prominent architect to their project. Ritchie has run the award-winning firm since his partner, Johnson, died three years ago at age 98.
"For these well-known architects, we're small fish," said Carol Conner, who is the "murshida," or spiritual leader, for Sufism Reoriented.
"The basic design was really Alan's translation of the principles and specifications that I gave to him into a vision, into a form. I was just delighted."
Ritchie said he enjoys working on small projects because they allow him to express his
creativity. He was intrigued by Conner's description of Sufism Reoriented and what the group was seeking, he said.
He personally designed the new sanctuary and multi-use building for the group, developing 13 dome-shaped structures inspired by Mount Diablo and the surrounding hills. The circular, white buildings also symbolize unity, one of the group's core principals, Conner said.
"The Christian church builds their beautiful cathedrals in the form of a cross because of their love of that symbol, which is at the heart of their values and ideals," Conner said.
Ritchie said he envisions the round buildings "hugging" the congregation as they focus inward.
Unlike many grand cathedrals, the Sufism project will not be visible from a distance. Instead, it will be built partially underground so the domes won't exceed the neighborhood's 35-foot [m 10,5] height limit. In addition, the group has enlisted the prestigious SWA Landscape Design firm to help hide the building from public view, using plants.
Joe Runco of SWA said his firm joined the project in part because it likes to collaborate with talented architects.
SWA, which has California offices in San Francisco and Sausalito, is also working on the new California Academy of Sciences "green roof" and landscaping, as well as landscaping for the tallest building in the world, now under construction in Dubai.
The Sufism project presents challenges because landscaping will be planted on 1 to 4 feet [cm 30-120] of soil covering the rectangular roofs of the underground buildings, Runco said.
"It's definitely a different style of building, so I'm sure there are plenty of concerns from neighbors about, 'Will it seem garish or weird or not compatible?'" Runco said. "We're trying to create gardens inside the site. It's mostly underground, so there should be little or any evidence that there's anything going on there."
As a sign of their devotion to God, the congregation hopes to build much of the project itself, said contractor Chris Martin, who is a member of the group. He estimates the project, consisting largely of concrete blocks with precast stone cladding, will cost about $18 million.
Although some may consider the building to be simple because it will lack ornamentation, Martin said he and the congregation are excited by its intrinsic beauty.
"It's not elegant because of crystal and gold leaf," Martin said. "It's elegant because of its shape and design. We think it's gorgeous, and we hope a lot of people in the community will agree."