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.
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.”