The Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California, replaces an older cathedral fatally weakened by the 1989 San Francisco Bay Area earthquake. Upon completion, it will be the mother church for over 600,000 parishioners in the Oakland Diocese, as well as the seat of the bishop of the diocese.
As SOM partner Craig Hartman contemplated a new Catholic cathedral in downtown Oakland, he was struck by the glorious magnitude of the task. “Growing up in a religious family,” he states, “I couldn’t imagine a more important commission than to design a cathedral.”
The Oakland Diocese’s initial project prospectus called for light as the central focus of the design. In response to a question about which lighting principles he would employ on such a project, Hartman quoted architect Louis Kahn’s pronouncement: “We are born of light . . . we only know the world as it is evoked by light.”
Hartman was invited to participate in the design competition in large part because of his imaginative use of light and reflection in the then-under-construction International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport. In the competition questionnaire, Hartman evoked the airport terminal project both to indicate his own “predisposition towards lightness and luminosity in architecture,” and as an example of “the recent advances in the technology of glass and concepts in structural engineering” that made the terminal a celebrated architectural work. Light, Hartman suggested, could indeed be the key “to create a contemporary design that was still evocative of the Church’s two millennium-old traditions.”
The possibilities of creating a beckoning sacred space in the heart of an American city led Hartman to reflect on the religious architecture that inspired him to enter the field of architecture. He recalled his “own first encounters with the windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and Le Corbusier’s use of filtered light at the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp.”
Beginning his quest to “create a place that could inspire wonder,” Hartman consulted retired SOM partner Walter Netsch, with whom he had worked in the seventies, and who in the late 1950s had designed the iconic, soaring Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “Walter was one of the few people alive who had taken on a similar challenge,” Hartman notes. Netsch, in turn, referenced “The Church Incarnate,” a 1958 book by Rudolph Schwartz, a German architect, priest, and Mies van der Rohe associate. Schwartz’s work was considered a primer for church building; in it, he professed that designing churches “is a work in its own right, bound strictly to its own meaning.”
Building on Netsch and Schwartz, Hartman and his team solidified their understanding of the meaning of “church” in terms of “a communion of believers,” which translated into a design vision that refused to recapitulate the linear and hierarchical structure of a classical basilica format. Their concept instead defined the altar as a center around which the 1,500-seat sanctuary should be focused. This notion of a ring around the altar also helped push SOM designers towards a more fluid, curvilinear, minimalist space for the overall design of the cathedral’s sanctuary.
The Diocese asked the design team to think about the cathedral in terms of a three-century lifespan: “We felt that the 300-year standard applied not only to the cathedral’s structural integrity,” Hartman recalls, “but equally to the aesthetic that that building should be architecturally worthy of lasting at least until the 24th century.” According to structural engineering partner Bill Baker, it was equally important to use “an ‘of the moment’ approach to design and material because it was the most honest and sensible way to proceed.” This belief in the rightness of contemporary design led the team away from, for example, a neo-gothic tribute and towards a modern design instead.
The sanctuary design references two interlocking spherical grids in the form of the “Vesica Pisces,” the conjoined circles that represent both an ancient symbol of congregation and the basic symbol of Christianity—the fish. The interlocking grids will support curved glass walls that are ceramically coated to infuse varying degrees of opacity. The results will be a glowing, variegated, indirectly lit interior space, vaulting up 12-stories to a glass oculus roof which is also in the intersecting circle motif.
The oculus was designed to focus light on the central altar, provide a view of the sky above, and be a component in a unique, passive cooling system. This system will utilize open slots in the floor, to allow cool air to be pulled up from below by the natural convection created by the gradual heating of the glass walls during the day. The rising heated air will be vented through openings in the oculus above.
Thinking in terms of sustainable design, Hartman chose materials that are indigenous, intrinsically symbolic, and less costly. The base of the sanctuary will be thick, 15-foot high walls, constructed of architectural concrete, then clad in stone to provide a solid, grounded, and natural-looking base for the 120-foot high glass vault above.
Wood, rather than steel, will be used to form the cathedral’s supporting lattice because of its warmth and reference to light, as well as its religious significance. Furthermore, the team felt that Douglas Fir framing would provide a natural, renewable, more beautiful, and equally earthquake-proof structural inner skin to support the outermost glass skin, which will seem to float at varying depths over the wooden arches.
The use of wood will also symbolically connect the cathedral to Northern California’s august redwood groves, as well as tie it to the simple, elegant wood work of Bay Area Arts and Crafts architects like Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan. It would also prove to be a pivotal, economic advantage that would ultimately win SOM the design contract.
The cathedral’s floor plan was designed to take parishioners on a symbolic journey from the ordinary to the sacred through the placement of a circular baptismal font directly inside the front door. The font, a water element that references Lake Merritt, the Bay, and the Pacific Ocean beyond, will be set on an axis with the exterior pathway, thus providing a pivotal connection between the entrance and the cathedral altar.