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Spirit in the Landscape

By Stephen Kelly, editor

From atop the grand staircase and central cascading water runnel, just down from the Worship Center, the view is to the Promenade and one parking area of Saddleback Church in Forest Lake, Orange County, Southern California.


While many people think of Orange County (O.C.) Calif. as an upscale community on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, when you motor up El Toro Rd. in Lake Forest in southern O.C. to Saddleback Church, you've left the expansive beaches behind and entered the hilly hinterland, which is surprisingly rugged. Development keeps intruding, of course, but these hills have protected wilderness parks and trails where O.C. residents enjoy walking, mountain biking and just generally getting away from the urgency of the urban sprawl.

Just off El Toro Rd. before you get to the bikers' bar and parks, there's a left-turn lane and a sign indicating "Saddleback Church." People driving up the hill may not even see the sign or be unaware that up the hill to the left is one of the largest churches in the U.S.

Above and Below: The landscape architects felt the Mediterranean play area for children ages 6 to 12 required a strong landscape edge to separate it from the church access road and the nearby toll road. This was accomplished with a hardscape of boulders, trees (evergreen elms, pink trumpets, maytens, Canary Island and Mondell pines and a New Zealand Christmas tree), and outcroppings of copper fountain grass and African iris. The play area has a fishing village theme featuring a life-size whale (Jonah and the whale)--shotcrete covered with SAF DEK--whose midsection is submerged in waves of safety surfacing. A map of the world of the New Testament, play equipment grouped along a pier and a waterfront village climbing structure highlight the Mediterranean playground.
Photos by Guy Nelson

When Rick and Kay Warren came west to Saddleback in December 1979 with their worldly possessions in a U-haul truck, perhaps Pastor Rick didn't envision by Easter of 1980 he'd hold his first public service attended by 205 people. On any Sunday these days, he expects 20,000 plus!

From the Worship Center you descend past queen palms, tipuana trees and holly ferns to the Garden of Eden, one of seven special gardens designed for Saddleback. This Eden, however, has a sunken patio area of flagstone. There are fruit trees of course, including a signature apple tree.

Saddleback Church is associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but Pastor Rick has a "purpose driven" philosophy that has spread to many denominations. Christianity Today called him "America's most influential pastor," having taught 300,000 pastors through his "church growth" seminars and far more through his books and videos. His influence is said to reach into every sphere of Christianity today. His latest book, The Purpose-Driven Life, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 45 weeks and over 11 million copies have been sold.

The 1,350-foot-long promenade, over the hill from the Children's Courtyard, will ultimately connect the far north and south ends of the 100-acre campus. A large, circular plaza of flagstone begins near the parking area with a circular band of colored concrete, followed by a runway of pavers interspersed with bands of sandy-colored concrete.

Editor's note: On November 29, 2007, Hillary Clinton spoke at Saddleback Church. It was Rev. Rick's annual HIV/AIDS summit. Six presidential candidates were invited, but she alone made a personal appearance. In 2006, Sen. Barack Obama spoke at the summit.

The stepping stone stream is 4 to 6 inches deep upstream, with a maximum depth of 18 inches downstream. The stream has 6-in. shotcrete steps with irregular edges and a cobbled bottom. Two colors of stain were applied to the concrete surface for a mottled effect.
Photo by Dan Herman, RLA of R/Hdo

Southern California is known for its "laid back" demeanor (less so since half the East Coast moved here) and so it's not surprising that many attending Saddleback sermons are dressed O.C. style--jeans and tennis shoes. One attendee noted many dressed in shorts, Hawaiian shirts and even "dressy Sunday flip-flops."

"The Children's Courtyard was designed as an alternate route to the main campus promenade," note the landscape architects. The entry to the main education building and the children's baptismal pool are both in the plaza. The Discovery Zone and Preschool Building are to the left.
Photo by Dan Herman, RLA of R/Hdo

Some first-timers are surprised by the large video screens, the piped-in music and the live music, which might include a vocal duet accompanied by piano, organ, drums, electric lead guitar, electric bass, two saxes, two horns, strings and woodwinds.

The Children's Courtyard is also used for baptisms. "The baptismal pool was designed as the uppermost pool in a series of cascading pools and streams, every one intended for children's play," explained the landscape architects. "One of the design challenges was presenting a baptismal pool without visually separating the pool from the Children's Courtyard with security fencing." Lightweight fiberglass grates maintain code-acceptable water depths, which are easily removed to provide a four-foot depth pool for baptisms. The baptismal pool is constructed of Lithocrete.

The Project Intent

The Children's Ministry Center (CMC) was envisioned as a complex of buildings to provide facilities for religious education for young children in a unique, stimulating nonreligious visual environment.

From the plaza hub are four zones of "confetti" paving, consisting of contrasting pavers in terra cotta (the base paver color), green, red, golden yellow and a few in charcoal for contrast. Emanating from the hub are also six bands representing dry stream beds accented with cobbles. The band you see here leads directly to the concrete bench module, baptismal waters and concrete amphitheater steps, lightly sandblasted. The flagstone to the right of the baptismal pools is "snakeskin" from Southwest Stone. Peppermint trees are silhouetted on the hill.

CMC was intended to be the first construction in a series of planned projects, including a similar center for older children, a chapel, classrooms and other administrative uses. The church leadership had a desire to create a strong landscape statement and a pedestrian campus.

The wood structure at the far end of the Children's Court is designed to look like a large tree house. It bridges the upper-level walks and connects the pre-school and nursery buildings. It is partially set on a rock outcropping/ tunnel that leads youngsters to the Ark Play area.

Role of the Landscape Architects

The Rabben/Herman Design Office, the landscape architect firm, was retained after master planning of the three-building complex. The landscape architects worked with the religious education staff to identify 22 Bible stories to integrate into the site design. The selected Bible stories were intended to be incorporated into the landscape to illustrate religious instruction, but that was secondary to their visual appeal. Following this work, detailed working drawings and specifications were prepared for all hardscape, landscape planting, play areas, irrigation and water features.

The concrete archway and ledgestone veneer connect the Garden of Eden to the Children's Ministry Center.


CMC has a high degree of visibility. Saddleback Church hosts meetings and conferences for groups across the U.S. and from many foreign countries. The play-area concept and integration of the Bible-story elements have been used by many other churches as models for development of sites across Southern California and the U.S. The design of the play areas was so well received that church officials found the areas being used as public parks by residents of the surrounding neighborhood, which motivated the church leadership and membership to advance other planned projects and further build out the campus.

From the Tree House you look down to the Ark play area. The little triumvirate of boulders is set in the SAF DEK surfacing, which is the edge for the wood chips. The play equipment is by Kompan. A Samuel Sommers magnolia is in the concrete planter.

Special Factors

"The overall design achieved the client's objectives to provide a campus-like environment with a strong emphasis on the landscape, creating a rich and pleasant environment that can accommodate large crowds and small intimate gathering spaces," notes the landscape architects. Many new varieties of plant materials were introduced and have resulted in a varied, rich visual environment.

This tranquil setting of rock, water and evergreens at the Promenade Bridge is perfect for contemplating the infinite. The sides of the bridge are ledgestone with a concrete cap and the surface of the bridge a board-formed concrete that replicates wood.

The integration of the Bible stories into the landscape in artistic and playful ways is a unique aspect of the overall design. A life-size whale to play on, an ark with pairs of spring animals and a stream that features the "parting waters" are visually interesting and fulfill the client's request for educational features.

The Discovery Zone is along the main education building and has a series of custom designed play modules of concrete with L.M. Scofield colors (fern green, antique amber, copper patina and custom blue. They look a bit like ancient ruins and symbolically reflect the Old and New Testament. The concrete pavers in the courtyard transition to colorful, spongy safety surfacing here. A "story telling" tree (a naked coral) acts as an outdoor classroom and seating area for parents waiting for their children. Through the gate (background) is the Mediterranean Play Area.

Design Challenge

One of the design challenges was presenting a baptismal pool without visually separating the pool from the Children's Court with security fencing. A system of lightweight fiberglass grates was used to maintain code-acceptable water depths during everyday use, while allowing easy removal to provide the four-foot depth required for baptisms.

The stairway at the end of the Promenade is bisected by a concrete runnel veneered in ledgestone. The runnel is in line with and draws the eye to the cross at the top of the Worship Center.

The design also introduced state-of-the-art irrigation equipment with central controls and weather station monitoring to increase efficiency of the campus-wide irrigation. The estimated water savings to the campus is over 35 percent.

Saddleback Church-Children's Ministry Center, Lake Forest, Calif.

Firm: Rabben/Herman Design Office (R/Hdo), Newport Beach, Calif.

Note: At the 70th anniversary celebration of the Southern California ASLA Chapter, December 6, 2007, R/Hdo won two Merit awards, one for the project featured here, Saddleback Church, and for Etnies Skate Park.

R/Hdo Principals for the Saddleback Church Project

William Rabben III, RLA, a Sonoma, Calif. native, studied landscape architecture at U.C. Berkeley and Harvard. Early on, he was a senior associate with Sasaki Associates in Watertown, Mass., then moved back to California and became an associate and project designer with the SWA Group in their Laguna Beach and Sausalito offices.

Bill was principal and design director for the Southern California office of EDAW (1982-1991) and started his own firm in 1993, Office of William Rabben.

Bill's notable projects include the Charleston South Carolina Waterfront Park, his 10-year association with expanding the Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian campus in Newport Beach, Calif., designing the Scottsdale Princess Hotel landscapes, and leading the design of the Asia Pacific Trade Center in Osaka, Japan.

Daniel Herman, RLA, was principal and vice president of the international firm of EDAW for 13 years and Harland Bartholomew & Associates for 12 years prior to co-founding R/Hdo.

His notable work includes directing site development for Universal Studio's Island's of Adventure theme park in Orlando, directing the design for Warner Bros. theme park in Madrid, designing the 3,000 acre Council Bluff Recreation Area in southern Missouri for the U.S. Forest Service, and leading the Strategic Vision Plan for all of the U.S. Navy Southern Division facilities in the south west.

Tom Skinfill, ASLA has 25 years of resort and hotel experience, including work in Asia. He worked with Bill Rabben at EDAW over 20 years ago, so the old working colleagues are together again.

LASN's editor and photographer walked the Saddleback Church grounds and stopped to take images of each of the varying hardscapes. Materials include precast concrete pavers, flagstone, lithocrete and colored concrete.

pea gravel in concrete

red colored paver

ledgestone veneers plus board-formed concrete that replicates wood

colored concrete

flagstone paving 'snakeskin'

"Confetti" paving, consisting of contrasting colored pavers in terra cotta, green, red, golden yellow and charcoal.

granite boulders

colored pea gravel in concrete

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December 10, 2019, 7:14 pm PDT

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