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Medieval Modern
| Christ the Light Cathedral completes an architectural trinity in downtown Oakland. | By Lauri Puchall

When completed, cosmopolitan congregants and tourists alike will file up the generous ramp and ceremonial stairs, pass through the grand portal, and bend around the circular baptistery to confront the full glory of a luminous and spacious sanctuary. During daytime Mass, light will pour in through wooden slats, a skylight oculus and pinhole-pricked sheet-metal panels behind the altar. By night, the louvered and layered structural skin will radiate a glow like a lantern.

Christ the Light Cathedral, from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (known as SOM), on the northwest shore of Lake Merritt, is the long-awaited home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland that lost its St. Francis de Sales parish at 21st and San Pablo Avenue in the Loma Prieta earthquake nearly 20 years ago. The cathedral—only the 34th in California—promises to be a religious beacon, a home for local Catholics, a meeting place and more.

After a brief three-year construction period, the sleek new house of worship adjacent to downtown Oakland is preparing to open its two sets of massive double doors to the East Bay’s half a million parishioners in September.

The architect derived the plan from the overlapping of two intersecting circles representing the Vesica Piscis, literally “bladder of the fish” in Latin. The shape is also known as màndorla or almond in Italian. The màndorla was used during medieval times to symbolize the interdependence of opposing forces, like spirit and matter, or heaven and earth.

Appropriately, the cathedral complex’s 224,000 square feet embraces the spiritual as well as the material. In addition to the main sanctuary, there will be a bookstore, restaurant, offices, central chancery, conference center and parish residences for the bishop and priests. Outdoor courtyards and gardens designed by Peter Walker Landscape Architects of Berkeley will be open to the public; the complex also includes underground parking for 200 cars.

To some, the cathedral looks like a fish, to others a 110-foot-tall crown of thorns or hands in prayer. In spite of its unusual shape, Christ the Light fits into its downtown surroundings. “The glazed skin on the outside mimics the glass high-rises around it. It is clad in a similar vocabulary,” says Oakland architect Michael Pyatok, who drives by the cathedral every day on his way to and from his office downtown and home on the opposite side of the lake. “Some would argue it looks too much like an office building,” he adds. Local judgment appears suspended until the cathedral is completed.


At the suggestion of the Oakland Diocese, the architects built representational sacred art into the design. Using the latest high-tech digital technology, they engineered a looming apparition at least 50 feet tall out of 94,000 pixels of light. When light passes through computer-generated perforations in metal panels, a transitory image of Christ borrowed from 13th-century Chartres Cathedral emerges over the main altar, filling the soaring space. The computer also generated the patterns on the ceramic-fritted glass panels that will fill the sanctuary with indirect light of various patterns and textures.

“The architecture is all about an ephemeral luminosity and the nuance of shifting light and shadow,” says the cathedral’s soft-spoken architect and SOM design partner Craig Hartman.

Crypts made of Italian Carrera marble will surround a funeral altar that lies directly below the main pulpit. Light from above will filter through sections of translucent flooring marked by a tremendous concrete cross. “The extraordinary design is reminiscent of cathedrals of Europe with catacombs,” says Steve Oliver, a Richmond contractor who built the lower levels of the cathedral.

Hartman says Christ the Light will be unprecedented in the way it integrates the architecture into the funeral ritual. The Catholic birth to death and rebirth metaphor will vivify as funeral processions begin upstairs and wend their way to sacred spaces on a lower level below the sanctuary. “It is meant to be a powerful statement about our time on earth and the passage everyone makes,” says Hartman.

Just how rare are crypts in America? One other cathedral in the United States has the distinction of having a crypt—the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, designed by Rafael Moneo and completed in 2002. Whereas costly crypt burials are by invitation only in Los Angeles, in Oakland “burials will be ecumenical, on a first-come, first-served basis,” says Oliver. With community inurnment of cremated remains costing $1,500, and niches starting at $2,000, no one will be turned away. Single crypts will cost a minimum of $9,000, according to Robert Mallon, a church member who volunteers with the cathedral mausoleum.

As with real estate, location is key and prices rise accordingly. A pair of crypts at eye level near the altar will cost about $130,000. Donations for burial chambers will pay for the operational costs of the church over time. That’s why the diocese wanted to devote as much space as possible to them, says Hartman. Catholic Cemeteries, a separate division of the diocese, will manage the 1,300 crypts and 1,450 niches.

While the crypts of Christ the Light are palpably medieval, the structure is decidedly contemporary and blends artfully with its neighboring high-rises to create an architectural trinity.


South of the cathedral complex lies the Kaiser building, Welton Becket’s 1960 aluminum-frame corporate classic. Behind the rectory and courtyard is the 1970 H-shaped Ordway building—the city’s tallest office tower to date.

Christ the Light defers to Ordway by sitting off to the north at the intersection of Harrison and Grand, keeping the view from Ordway to the lake clear. According to church lore, priests performed Oakland’s early baptisms by dunking members of the flock into Merritt’s murky waters just a stone’s throw from where the new cathedral sits.

The two-and-a-half-acre site is also significant for what once was there. The new complex repairs an old tear in Oakland’s urban fabric left in 1974 when the city razed the colorful 1928 Iranian-style, former Packard automobile showroom at 21st and Harrison, designed by early-20th-century master Bernard Maybeck. The prime property sat vacant for over 30 years as an office-tower parking lot.

Filling a void, the cathedral complex knits the neighborhood and the modern trinity of Kaiser, Ordway and Christ the Light more tightly together. In a move that pays homage to SOM’s earlier work, the architects elevated the cathedral and its plaza 15 feet above street level, creating an outdoor plinth that connects Ordway’s plaza with the church. One may walk east from BART on 22nd Street, through the Ordway Plaza, and up a few stairs into the sunny cathedral gardens.

The cathedral, cafe and bookstore can be reached by what the church refers to as the “pilgrim’s path.” The path or ramp begins at the corner of Harrison and 21st Street, directly opposite Kaiser’s porte cochere, and in turn links to Ordway via an existing sky bridge over 21st Street. Hartman says that he strove for “seamless integration [of the complex] with the city.”

Hartman, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects originally from rural Indiana, has spent his entire career at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the world’s largest architecture and engineering firms. The firm is known for monumental planning projects, like its recent 393-acre Treasure Island Plan. Its San Francisco office is responsible for much of that city’s skyline.

While the $190 million Christ the Light was a particularly prestigious commission for him, Hartman has designed larger projects. Lately, he jets back and forth between San Francisco and China, where he is working on the 500,000-square-foot U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Hartman says Christ the Light’s design was inspired by a 1998 trip to New York when he saw Richard Serra’s Double Torqued Ellipse and Fred Sandbach’s minimalist string sculptures. They influenced the cathedral design and encouraged “the stripping away of the layers often associated with the church,” he explains.

In the modern mode, the design sticks to basic materials like unclad concrete. Structural elements, such as the interior Douglas fir louvers, Glu-Lam wood ribs and steel connector plates that comprise the inside of the main sanctuary’s inverted ark, are in plain view.

The sanctuary is protected by the latest seismic technology. Concealed under its floor are friction pendulum isolators that Mark Sarkisian, SOM’s engineering director, likens to a puck on a curved hockey rink. “It was important to create a structure delicate enough for light to be transmitted into the space,” says Sarkisian. “The wood structure, steel rods and glass are delicate, but because it is isolated, it is protected,” he explains.

Isolators work like a pendulum, moving back and forth. The longer it takes for a structure to sway, the less acceleration, force and displacement. By increasing a building’s period (the duration of the sway), isolators allow it to move in a gentler manner, says Sarkisian.

Given a strong enough jolt, a coating will wear off the surface on which the isolators sit, setting the building free to slide up, down, and from side-to-side in any direction. After a major quake it will re-center, settling back into its original position.

The cathedral, say its creators, will survive us all. It is designed to withstand the next big one and last at least three centuries.


In addition to her regular column in The Monthly, Lauri Puchall is a frequent contributor to Rental Housing and the Architect’s Newspaper where she writes about material ecology, architecture and the environment. Her articles have appeared on ArchNewsNow and ArchitectureWeek. She works for Turk Kauffman Architecture and volunteers at Audubon Canyon Ranch.




Light and shadow: The two intersecting circles of Oakland’s new almond-shaped cathedral, photographed in November, will glow like a lantern by night. Photo ©John Blaustein.