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Cathedral “Christ the Light”

SOM | Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Cathedral “Christ the Light”
By Michael Webb -

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...

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