The newly completed Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland is a revelation. Craig Hartman, a partner in the San Francisco office of SOM, who previously led a design team on the vast steel and glass terminal at the international airport, fulfilled his goal to create “a contemporary building to inspire wonder and to honor the symbolic traditions of the Catholic faith.” The cathedral is a major departure for this corporate architectural firm as it is for Oakland, the city across the bay that Gertrude Stein dismissed with the phrase “there is no there, there.”
For an architect, it’s a formidable challenge to create a great sacred space in a secular age, especially when it’s located at the heart of a modern city. Though Americans manifest the delusions of faith more frequently than Europeans, their halls of worship are generally uninspiring. The newest mega-churches are bare stages for fiery preachers and go-go choirs, with a spire and crucifix as obligatory props. The cathedrals of New York and Washington DC are labored recreations of Gothic models, and St Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, designed in the late 1960s by Pietro Belluschi and Pierluigi Nervi, is a vast, inert container rising from a sterile podium. The cruciform opening of stained glass tells you it’s for Christians, but it could as easily serve as a conference center.
Around the world, there are a few notable exceptions: remote centers of faith such as Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp and John Pawson’s Novy Dvur, as well as Richard Meier’s parish church in the suburbs of Rome and Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light in Osaka. These modern treasures are great in spirit but small in scale. Oakland achieves a balance of intimacy and soaring space, openness and protection, luminosity and mystery.
The new cathedral replaces a traditional structure that was irreparably damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, an event that also cleared the ground for Herzog & de Meuron’s De Young Museum and Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences. Would that all natural catastrophes were so beneficial!
In developing SOM’s design, which was chosen over entries from Santiago Calatrava and Ricardo Legorreta, Hartman was inspired by a pair of exhibitions at the DIA gallery in New York. Richard Serra’s torqued ellipses of rusted steel were set up alongside Fred Sandback’s string constructions, defining space through mass and immateriality. Both play a role in the cathedral, which appears from afar as a truncated glass cone rising from an elevated plaza and overlooking Lake Merritt. Close-up, the cone is overwhelmed by a cluster of office towers-one of which was, ironically, designed by the same firm.
The street grid of the business district drops five meters to the road that flanks the lake. The architects exploited that shift of grade to put the mausoleum, offices, conference center, parking and other support spaces into a concrete podium that is partially lit from a sunken courtyard. A ramp provides a processional route up to the landscaped plaza and south-facing entry. Curved sections of laminated glass veil a structural frame of glue-laminated beams, which provided an organic and less costly alternative to steel, and are anchored in low concrete walls. The outer skin is laminated clear glass with a custom frit pattern and a translucent interlayer to filter the light and block traffic noise. More beams support spherical sections of Douglas fir louvers that enclose the nave and the two frames are linked with steel tension rods. Side chapels are lit from above with portholes that open up to this interstitial void.
The louvers frame mandorlas, in the ceiling and the walls at either end, and each is given distinctive treatment. The Alpha wall over the low entry contains a diagrid of triangular aluminum leaves, alternatively upright and tilted inwards to reflect and admit direct sun, which casts shards of light over the polished concrete floor. The Omega wall to the north is suffused with the image of a 12th-century sculpture of Christ from the west portal of Chartres Cathedral. Generated by pixilated light passing through 94,000 computer-generated holes of varied size, it is half Chuck Close portrait, half hovering ectoplasm. When the bishop came to the site during construction to approve a test panel, the building still lacked a roof, and natural light washed out the image. The contractor quickly hoisted a trailer by crane to block the glare and thus reveal the ghostly head of Christ.
In the ceiling, aluminum plates are folded into a geometrical relief to serve as an acoustical baffle and admit streaks of sunlight that wash over the Omega screen at midday to give it added depth. The perimeter is perforated to admit a halo of soft light from a skylight high above. These three framed screens complement the wooden louvers which also chart the shifts of weather and time of day, and allow light to flow out through the glass to create a beacon at night. Red oak furnishings combine with the Douglas fir to warm the space and link it to the natural world beyond. A liturgical consultant advised on the colors in the Venetian plaster walls of the side chapels.
Hartman sought to create an ancient quality from new geometries, and to use a Fibonacci sequence to enhance the timeless symbolism of square and circle. Just within the portal is a circular stone baptismal font, which serves as a hub and a mirror. The longitudinal axis from the ramp is rotated 32 degrees towards the block of white marble that serves as a central altar. This is suspended above a disc of glass that lights the mausoleum below, and surrounded by curved pews and choir stalls. A cross axis extends from the font to chapels of reconciliation on either side, each with a grid of wood blocks enclosing a confessional.
The Oakland Cathedral inspires awe through its harmony of proportion and organic materials, unmarred by the pious kitsch and forest of suspended lights that disfigure Rafael Moneo’s cathedral in LA. Budgetary constraints dictated simplicity, and an ingenious system of floor vents and radiant heating warm and cool only the lower level of the interior. Base isolators and the natural elasticity of the wood beams protect the building from earthquakes along the two faults that traverse the region and this should ensure 400 years of life or more. Subtleties and complexities reveal themselves slowly and quietly. Nothing compromises the serenity of the space and the magical quality of the light.