Beyond Buildings


The Oakland Cathedral: That's The Spirit

Submit A Comment | View Comments

Cathedral of Christ the Light. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When an architect talks about spiritual architecture, I reach for my pitchfork, or at least my B.S. meter. Certainly architects have never given up trying to channel the divine, though most of their attempts come across as rather forced. Grand gestures, fetishized materials, an obsession with light, and a removal of all outside context seem to be the prerequisites for any architecture that would answer to a higher calling.

For that reason I found it refreshing to discover that the design partner of one of the country’s largest corporate firms, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, has succeeded at creating at an uplifting moment in a building for one of the most ritual-bound religious institutions, the Catholic church. The Craig Hartman-designed Cathedral of Christ the Light, the pretentious title of what most of us know as the Oakland Cathedral, was finished a few years ago, but I only had the chance to see it last week.

Like most good buildings, it has one good move, and it is a doozy: Hartman turned the body of the church into a conical space, stretched and pinched both in height and in length. It is a vessel, rising up to a skylight that bathes the inhabitants with the requisite light. What makes the space so remarkable is not only its shape, which mediates between the axial and the cross plans, thus combining a focus on the rituals with a sense of coming together into the community of Christ, but also its structure. In good SOM fashion, Hartman exposed the laminated wood ribs that rise up all around you to shape and make possible the space, turning them into abstractions and condensations of the panoply of vaults, arches, and buttresses we associate with the cathedral type.

The building is, when you look at it from the inside, all structure, its cladding a fretted glass skin surrounding the ribs from the outside. In fact, that is really all there is, other than exquisite detailing: the entrance is on axis, the chapels are tucked into the base between wood and glass, and the concrete base hides the mausoleum and ancillary functions, while mediating between the street level to the West and a lake to the East. From the outside, the Cathedral is an abstraction and condensation of spire and body, but also of skyscraper and convention hall.

Even the art has become an almost abstract entity: instead of a sculpture or a cross, a giant reproduction of a stone rendition of Christ from Notre Dame hovers without body over the audience, printed on aluminum panels. Only the organ is material and articulate in its many, albeit angular, pipes. The skylight counts as art, too, as it was designed by James Carpenter.

To answer the question whether this vindicates spiritual architecture: I am not sure that it's possible to design something that is spiritual, but the Oakland Cathedral shows that you can certainly use the traditions that created the possibility for having an out-of-body experience while at the same time giving you an experience of deep belonging to the world and others, all in a form that seems appropriate and efficient.

Walking into the Cathedral, almost at dusk, made the experience especially powerful. The building glowed, the twilight obscuring the busy pattern of the fretting. The city was hushed, the lake still, and the experience of walking into the sanctuary measured, allowing the surprise of the space to unfold without surprise, but in full scope. However many doubts you might have about religion, about modernism, or about the wisdom of spending close to two hundred million dollars on this one space, the result is certainly testimony that the religion of architecture, focused on the absolute and ephemeral deity of space buttressed by structure, is alive, well, and productive.


Comments (3 Total)

  • Posted by: | Time: 10:45 PM Wednesday, February 08, 2012

    kay k. worz My commentary was in response to Mary Ran's erudite comments.

    Report this as offensive

  • Posted by: | Time: 10:04 PM Monday, February 06, 2012

    A lovely commentary from a Faith-filled art connoisseur, who sees a sacred space as a functioning raison d'etre, for those who value and are in touch with their spirituality. Bravo! Kay K. Worz

    Report this as offensive

  • Posted by: Mary Ran | Time: 9:40 AM Thursday, February 02, 2012

    I beiieve that the Cincinnati Art Museum is a very spiritual building. The history of art is the history of man with all ages, cultures, races, religions represented. I believe that we are all God's children and that He wants us to love each other as He has loved us. Have you been in a holy space when everyone is praying for the same thing? For instance, peace, health, our country, our world? We are not in control...God is. After 9-11, our churches were filled and the prayers were the same for every religion. Most of the people I know are praying for our country and our leaders, for peace in the world, health, happiness and asking God to take loving care of our loved ones. Holy spaces are very special to most people. People come together to give thanks, praise and ask for guidence and strength.

    Report this as offensive

Comment on this Post

Post your comment below. If you wish, enter a username and password though they are not required. Please read our Content Guidelines before posting.


Enter the code shown in the image

Username is optional


Enter a password if you want a username


About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.