The Oakland Cathedral: That's The Spirit
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.