First came the bishops. Then, a few hundred priests. Then, a 70-person choir singing, “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.” Slowly and solemnly, they filed up the ramp from 21st Street and toward the Cathedral of Christ the Light, which opened on the shores of Oakland’s Lake Merritt on September 25.
The procession, while rooted immediately in the physical world, a 2.5-acre site punctuated by the $190 million, 135-foot-tall structure, channeled the traditions of a far-off spiritual world.
In an interlude between hymns, the cathedral’s architect, Craig Hartman, a partner in the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, explained his intent to create a place of “openness, luminosity and of joy” and as a center for “spiritual and civic discourse and reflection in this increasingly secular world.”
Hartman has often referred to the project as the commission of a lifetime. Working closely with diocese leaders, he relished every opportunity to imbue elements of the cathedral’s design with symbolism. From the pisces-shaped roof, to the north- and south-facing “alpha” and “omega” walls, to the stream of sunlight illuminating a pool of holy water, everything has a meaning, and very little seems arbitrary.
Hartman also achieved the same sense of material and spatial lightness expressed in much of his architecture of the last decade: the sculptural glass panels atop San Francisco’s St. Regis Hotel on Third Street (2004), the transparent façade and atrium of the 101 Second Street office tower (2001) and, most famously, the lattice-like steel structure that seemingly floats over the international terminal at the San Francisco International Airport (2000).
Two aspects of the finished building particularly stand out. First, the cathedral’s inner and outer shells read as an integrated system. It seemed an unfortunate sight last fall, when it came time to cover the latticed, Douglas-fir-beamed structure with over 1,000 glass panels. From inside the cathedral, the inner frame appears all the more artful and delicate when shrouded by the exterior glass panels. Also, the pattern of horizontal beams against the loose grid of mullions adds a nice layer of visual complexity.
Second, inside the cathedral, the site of the giant icon of Christ looming above the altar is astonishing. Again, there is a surprising juxtaposition at play here: the pairing of an early Christian image with a 21st-century method for displaying it. Perforated with 94,000 small holes, the cathedral’s aluminum “omega” wall displays a 54-foot backlit image of Christ, seated, holding a book, and holding up two fingers representing the human and divine parts of his body. The image looks pixelated, like a medium-quality jpeg, yet the stoicism on Christ’s face remains legible.
The choice of iconography—as well as the overall form of the building—is a hopeful sign, I would think, of a more accepting and welcoming Catholic church. It’s a smart and self-reflective move for a religious institution whose image has been sullied by internal scandals and a rigid adherence to doctrine.
It’s worth noting here that the Catholic church has a long history of employing architects to save itself from extinction. For example, in the late 16th century—in the wake of the Protestant Reformation—a string of Catholic popes hired the most talented artists and architects to design dramatic flourishes in churches across Rome in an effort to recapture the attention of a fading constituency. The garish style that became the trademark of the Baroque movement (think Bernini or Borrimini) couldn’t be farther from the lightness and open-endedness that marks Hartman’s design for Oakland’s new cathedral. Only time will tell if his architecture can work in a more subtle, yet equally powerful way.