Launch Slideshow

Building the Modern Cathedral

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away—although sometimes in reverse order, as in the case of the Cathedral of Christ the Light now nearing completion in Oakland, Calif.

Building the Modern Cathedral

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away—although sometimes in reverse order, as in the case of the Cathedral of Christ the Light now nearing completion in Oakland, Calif.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CA4%2Etmp_tcm20-129256.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/Cesar Rubio

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CA9%2Etmp_tcm20-129291.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/Cesar Rubio

    The cathedral's site on the shore of Lake Merritt is 16 feet lower than the surrounding city streets.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CAA%2Etmp_tcm20-129298.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM

    The cathedral's site on the shore of Lake Merritt is 16 feet lower than the surrounding city streets. This allowed the architects to nestle programmatic requirements, such as office space, underneath a large public plaza, leaving an uncluttered site.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CAB%2Etmp_tcm20-129305.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM

    The cathedral's site on the shore of Lake Merritt is 16 feet lower than the surrounding city streets. This allowed the architects to nestle programmatic requirements, such as office space, underneath a large public plaza, leaving an uncluttered site.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CAC%2Etmp_tcm20-129312.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM

    Chapel Form One of the biggest concerns for the SOM team was to create a sense of luminosity inside the space. Their strategy: layering a glass curtain wall over a series of curved Douglas fir louvers, all anchored in a seismically sound, base-isolated concrete structure.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CAD%2Etmp_tcm20-129319.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/Cesar Rubio

    The interior space is defined by a curving, arcing wall of fixed wooden louvers, which give off a warm glow when illuminated by the sun.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CAE%2Etmp_tcm20-129326.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/Cesar Rubio

    The louvers are anchored to vertical ribs, which are in turn anchored to the concrete reliquary wall that frames the cathedral's base.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CAF%2Etmp_tcm20-129333.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/Cesar Rubio

    A fritted glass curtain wall forms the outer skin of the building along with the Alpha and Omega walls-the sculptural walls at either end of the space. High-performance glass was tested to make sure that it admitted enough light but didn't contribute to glare or heat gain.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2C9A%2Etmp_tcm20-129179.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/Cesar Rubio

    Glass is installed in a framework of vertical wooden members that form the canted and curving exterior wall. These wooden posts are secured to the interior wooden frame by a series of very thin steel cables and supports.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CB2%2Etmp_tcm20-129186.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM

    INSIDE DETAIL Glass is installed in a framework of vertical wooden members that form the canted and curving exterior wall. These wooden posts are secured to the interior wooden frame by a series of very thin steel cables and supports.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CCA%2Etmp_tcm20-129193.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/Gerald Ratto

    The arrangement of the pews is circular, surrounding one half of the circular altar. The SOM team decided on this configuration specifically based on research suggested by retired SOM partner Walter Netsch.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CE2%2Etmp_tcm20-129200.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/Gerald Ratto

    The arrangement of the pews is circular, surrounding one half of the circular altar. The SOM team decided on this configuration specifically based on research suggested by retired SOM partner Walter Netsch.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2C9E%2Etmp_tcm20-129214.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM

    The sanctuary is flanked at both ends by sculptural walls: the Alpha Wall over the entrance, and the Omega Wall over the altar at the other end. Carefully engineered with the help of 3-D modeling programs to determine stresses on materials, the walls create a striking presence and allow light to enter the space unfettered.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2C9F%2Etmp_tcm20-129221.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM

    ALPHA WALL Carefully engineered with the help of 3-D modeling programs to determine stresses on materials, the walls create a striking presence and allow light to enter the space unfettered.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CA0%2Etmp_tcm20-129228.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM

    Software The design team used a variety of programs to create the drawings and renderings for the project. Construction documents were created in AutoCAD ADT 3.3, otherwise known as version 2002, but for certain elements, such as the dynamic Alpha and Omega walls, the team turned to 3-D modeling program Form Z, version 4.0, to help determine angles and potential stresses. Structural models for the entire structure were created in SAP 2000. 3D StudioMax was used to create 3-D renderings of the building at all times of day, and Adobe's Illustrator and Photoshop, version CS, were used to create color site plans and elevations.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CA1%2Etmp_tcm20-129235.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM

    Seismic Base Isolators To protect the building from future earthquakes on the surrounding web of fault lines, the building's cast concrete base rests on 34 seismic base isolators to help the building ride out any shocks. The individual base isolators are arranged in a matrix, with the load evenly distributed. SOM's in-house structural engineering team, led by director Mark Sarkisian, specified friction-pendulum base isolators, each one with a 4-foot-diameter steel bearing. This particular variety of base isolator employs a sliding system, with an interfacial material that slides across stainless steel.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CA2%2Etmp_tcm20-129242.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/Cesar Rubio

    Glue-lam Ribs The actual geometry of the interior space was based on more than just the desire for a certain volume; it was based also on necessity. The width and curve of the wood structure's vertical glue-lam beams was informed in part by the 110- foot-long-by-13-foot-wide bed of the flatbed trucks that could make it over the bridges and through the tunnels on the path between the wood's origin in Portland, Ore., and the Oakland building site. The width was based on the standard 1-1/2-inch-by-11-1/4-inch dimensions of the stock laminations used in glue-lam construction.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CA3%2Etmp_tcm20-129249.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM

    Omega Wall When the bishop voiced his desire to include a strong representational image of Christ in the building, Hartman wanted to make it integral to the architecture. As a guide, the church supplied a digital image of a carved stone relief at Chartres Cathedral. A team of architects, environmental graphic designers, and members of SOM's digital design group worked together to create an algorithm that sorted the pixels according to brightness. The image was tweaked to enhance its legibility before then being mapped onto the 3-D surface. In finished form, the backlit image will rise more than 50 feet high, composed of more than 90,000 holes, ranging in size from 4mm to 24mm, laser cut into the anodized aluminum panels.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CA5%2Etmp_tcm20-129263.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/Jane Lee

    Above the sanctuary hovers an oculus with a scrim of faceted acoustical panels. The panels help absorb sound in the cavernous interior and filter daylight from the skylight above.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CA6%2Etmp_tcm20-129270.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM

    OCULUS SECTION Acoustical panels are capped on the exterior by an articulated glass roof, hidden from ground view by stainless steel extensions on the perimeter.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CA7%2Etmp_tcm20-129277.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/JOHN BLAUSTEIN

    Panels were assembled just above ground level to ensure proper proportion and overlapping, as called for by the plan. Suspended en masse from tensioned cables, the whole oculus was then hoisted into place.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmp2CA8%2Etmp_tcm20-129284.jpg

    true

    600

    SOM/John Blaustein

    Panels were assembled just above ground level to ensure proper proportion and overlapping, as called for by the plan. Suspended en masse from tensioned cables, the whole oculus was then hoisted into place.

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away—although sometimes in reverse order, as in the case of the Cathedral of Christ the Light now nearing completion in Oakland, Calif. There, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) had the opportunity to create a new 1,500-seat sanctuary as the mother church for more than 60,000 Catholics in the Oakland Diocese following the devastation caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which had weakened the existing St. Francis de Sales Cathedral beyond repair.

Rather than erect a new edifice in stone, architect Craig Hartman of SOM proposed replacing the damaged cathedral with a building crafted of light. Invited to interview for the job just as he was completing work on the celebrated International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport, Hartman expressed his desire to “create a place that could inspire wonder.” Following a preliminary screening process, SOM was commissioned—along with Ricardo Legorreta and Santiago Calatrava—to produce a schematic design. Ultimately SOM won the job.

Hartman's inspirations for the building were many and included advice from Walter Netsch, a stalwart at SOM for decades and designer of the famed U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel, in Colorado. Netsch steered Hartman to the seminal book The Church Incarnate, by German theorist and architect Rudolf Schwarz. In it, Schwarz advocated arranging parishioners in a circle around the altar to create a sense of community and inclusion, a concept that was later adopted as Catholic doctrine. Hartman was attracted to the idea and used it as an organizing feature of SOM's three-way competition entry, which was remarkably close to the final design. “Conceptually, it was identical,” he says, “the notion based upon making a wood sanctuary and enclosing it in veils of glass, and [making] a building that is about extraordinary lightness and luminosity.”

A downtown site for the new cathedral was selected on the edge of Lake Merritt, at a sunken block on the lakefront that rests more than 16 feet lower than the city streets along its western edge. Hartman recognized an opportunity to create an artificial ground plane, which allowed him to place the required offices, support space, parish hall, mausoleum, and conference center beneath a public plaza. The same strategy cleared the plaza of all but a handful of low-scale buildings—which will include a rectory, library, shop, and café—thus giving prominence to the soaring cathedral.

Hartman wanted to create a contemporary building that honors the symbolic traditions of the Catholic faith. “The most fundamental idea here was to start fresh,” he says. “We are here on the Pacific Rim in a multicultural place, not in 15th century Europe.” His scheme for the sanctuary references two connecting spheres in the manner of the vesica pisces, interlocking circles that represent both an ancient sign of congregation and Christianity's basic symbol—the fish. Sheltering the lattice-like wooden shells from the elements are two sloping veils of high-performance glass that cradle the sanctuary like two cupped hands. Enclosing each end of the sanctuary is a faceted wall—the south Alpha Wall, which rises above the main entrance, and the north Omega Wall, which answers a request from the bishop by incorporating an image of Christ rendered in a sophisticated array of perforations (see Toolbox). True to the spirit of the building's luminous interior, the image appears to parishioners in the pews to be made of light.

Although the high cost of the project has made headlines, budgetary concerns loomed large throughout the design process. “It was a consistent challenge to find ways to achieve this space, a building that would be not only physically able to survive for 300 or 400 years but also be an architecture that was worthy of this ambition,” Hartman allows.

  • The cathedral's site on the shore of Lake Merritt is 16 feet lower than the surrounding city streets.

    Credit: SOM/Cesar Rubio

    The cathedral's site on the shore of Lake Merritt is 16 feet lower than the surrounding city streets.

“We analyzed every alternative to making a space of this height and magnitude, looking at how to enclose it in a way that can be cost-effective.”

Hartman's initial selection of wood as the primary material was an intuitive choice, but a fortunate one. “When I designed this building seven years ago, we were just on the cusp of an unbelievable escalation in construction costs, especially in steel (see “Why Steel Is So Costly”). And had this building been fabricated in steel, which would have been the other choice, there is absolutely no way we could have afforded it.”

The glue-laminated wood ribs that support both the sanctuary walls and the glass veils were an ideal choice for a building intended to survive for hundreds of years, in spite of its position between the Hayward Fault, which runs along the eastern edge of Oakland, and the San Andreas Fault, which runs through San Francisco across the bay and was responsible for the Loma Prieta quake. Wood's elasticity allows it to bend in the event of a seismic occurrence, but it will return to its original shape, notes Mark Sarkisian, SOM's structural engineering director. “We took that material and combined it with reinforced concrete and delicate steel members that lace the system together three-dimensionally.”