Election Section

Oakland’s New Cathedral Transforms Lake’s Edge

By John Kenyon Special to the Planet
Thursday June 25, 2009 - 06:25:00 PM
The break in the outer facade of Oakland’s Cathedral of Light is the weakest element of the building’s design.
Richard Brenneman
The break in the outer facade of Oakland’s Cathedral of Light is the weakest element of the building’s design.
Thew new cathedral complex humanizes the 27-story Ordway Building at left.
Richard Brenneman
Thew new cathedral complex humanizes the 27-story Ordway Building at left.
The striking ceiling of the cathedral’s interior is  held in place by gracefully bending Douglas Fir beams, each more than 100 feet tall.
Richard Brenneman
The striking ceiling of the cathedral’s interior is held in place by gracefully bending Douglas Fir beams, each more than 100 feet tall.

To an old urban designer, the best view of Oakland’s new Roman Catholic Cathedral is from the raised edge of the wooded park that runs along Grand Avenue between Harrison and Children’s Fairyland at Grand and Bellevue. Looking under big trees across the narrow northerly arm of Lake Merritt, you’ll notice a remarkable transformation. Dominating the lake-edge since 1970, the 27-story Ordway Building, Kaiser’s second tower, is now suddenly humanized by the low spreading social complex of a new Catholic center, whose novel sanctuary, a glassy oval crown, completes the northerly end of a striking ensemble. 

At first glance, this light gray concrete podium of offices, meeting rooms, health center, cafe, Bishop’s Residence, etc., looks almost dingy until you notice the closely spaced new trees along Harrison, the not-yet-established roof-garden, and the vines planted along the base of presently plain walls. In a few years, this play of levels, already a delight to explore, will be a veritable hanging garden, reminiscent of the city’s world-admired museum at the southern end of the same lake. 

If you visit, take the time to stroll around this quiet plaza, raised above the traffic and noise of street-level, and commanding a lovely view of Lake Merritt’s tree-filled park. Notice how the proudly secular glass and aluminum Ordway tower has become an integral part of the grand composition, its existing plaza merging into the paved areas of the cathedral, so that during business hours you can actually walk through the elegant lobby to begin your tour. This novel compositional use of an independent high-rise already on-site is not surprising when you realize that the tower and its new religious neighbor were both designed by the celebrated San Francisco firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, whose cathedral design team had the courage and imagination to incorporate “Mammon” rather than try to ignore it on this restricted urban edge. 

If, like me, you are from a Protestant or simply non-Catholic background, don’t be intimidated by apprehensions about genuflecting, holy water, or “doing the wrong thing.” You will be made welcome at the main entrance and elsewhere by polite young people, and within by knowledgeable docents happy to answer any question.  

As an ex-architect who has seen a lot of churches, I was particularly struck by the lofty, evenly lit space. No dim religious light here, indeed no conventional windows. Instead, a great oval room created by a system of horizontal wood slats, acting like huge, curved venetian blinds held in place by big Douglas Fir ribs, each over a hundred feet tall and bending gracefully inward to a translucent boat-shaped ceiling. Its pointed ends at north and south meet the tops of similarly translucent panels that descend behind the altar at one end, and down to the entrance at the other. These are described officially as the Alpha and Omega windows, but “three-dimensional panels” might give a better picture. 

My own preference is for the Omega panel, with its remarkable 58-foot-high ethereal image of the Risen Christ re-created—by light through perforated aluminum panels—from the sculpted figure above the famous West Portal of Chartres Cathedral. The Alpha end, by contrast, seem to me totally devoted to providing, over the gutsy main entrance, a mandatory “Gothic” pointed arch and a modern free-standing cross, to legitimize as “religious” the otherwise severe, rather industrial-looking glass and metal exterior. What might have happened instead within this dramatic split over the grand entrance will make a wonderful design exercise for generations of future architecture students! 

It’s probably a blessing that either the design team or the clerics or both avoided the use of stained-glass within the above main space, for the magical centuries-old effect of rich colors reflected onto gray stone would have been impossible to reconcile with this calm, all-or-nothing temple of even light. However, if you are missing the comfort of traditional religious art, explore the seven little chapels housed within the massive concrete walls that form a “double-ring” foundation for the delicate dome of wood, glass, and steel-cables above. Here, below, in these intimate spaces, are the colorful Virgin and Child effigies, somber crucifixions and lively narrative paintings normally found on the main walls of more conventional Catholic churches. 

Unsurprisingly, the novelty here, for Europe-oriented visitors accustomed to art from Italy, France or Germany, is the strongly Hispanic character of most of the artifacts. In the Chapel of the Holy Family, gaily-painted lifelike statues of Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus accompany 17th century Spanish Colonial paintings from the School of Cuzco, while the Chapel of the Suffering Christ contains a tragic but beautiful 5-foot Jesus on a traditional Franciscan cross. At the Sanctuary, in the altar area, notice Andrew Bonnette’s bronze crucified Savior, and in the ambulatory, or outer-walk , the same artist’s low-relief Stations of the Cross—bronze against the austere concrete. 

It is far from easy to create a modern, “of our time” cathedral for a society that basks in the achievements of science while idolizing the affluent life. Merely hearing the historic word, most of us will think of stone and stained-glass miracles like Chartres, or Baroque masterpieces like St. Paul’s, deeply preferring them to the traditionless novelties of fame-seeking architects, while knowing in our hearts that such Medieval or Classical masterpieces are no longer remotely achievable. During the 20th century, for instance, Washington’s National Cathedral and the Anglican giant in Liverpool, both of them solid stone “Modernized Gothic,” took 83 and 75 years to build, yet people still yearn for that timeless, massive look. Of the two built in San Francisco, Episcopalian Grace—French Gothic in poured concrete—remains more loved, even today, than the adventurous, structurally expressive St. Mary’s Cathedral on the other Holy Hill. Adding confusion to this caution, the present-day worship of internationally famous “starchitects” has caused otherwise intelligent building committees to give carte blanche to originality-at-all-costs—a case of House of God versus the Pritzker Prize! 

In these stressful circumstances, the Oakland Diocese has done remarkably well. Advised by an exploratory design group that contained a distinguished critic, they considered internationally famous architects and suitable sites, ending up with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and the splendidly suitable edge of Lake Merritt. As described above, Craig Hartman’s sanctuary design is unique—a dome of filtered daylight that literally expresses the cathedral’s name “Christ the Light.” Flexibility is sacrificed to visual drama, requiring for instance, almost all the devotional sculpture, paintings, etc. to be displayed within the concrete ring of chapels below. 

For a dramatic contrast to this uncompromising design, visit, in person or on the Internet, L.A.’s almost new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, opened in 2002. Instead of our delicate, translucent “high-tech” dome floating over a parklike podium, renowned Spanish architect Rafael Moneo has provided a great solid-looking block of a building—a play of dramatic projections, tilted canopies and diagonally-placed walls that looks like it could house a museum full of murals, tapestries, sculpture and art objects not yet thought of. (www.olacathedral.org) 

Both these new cathedrals are quite splendid in their different ways, so make the effort to check out the very novel one close-by. Conducted tours are currently offered at 1 p.m. Monday though Friday from the plaza just outside the sanctuary entrance, but if you’d rather explore independently, you will be welcomed at least in the sanctuary, the gift shop and the cafe. Cathedral parking is accessed from 21st Street, between Harrison and Webster. For information call 893-4711. 

Anyone familiar with the Kaiser Center and its superb lake-edge site, will know that it has remained primarily a business district for many years. The original Kaiser Building from 1959, that great bow-fronted high-rise, did offer public restaurants, a handsome roof-garden, shops, and exhibition-areas, but over time, office space on the larger site has grown as “general public” participation has shrunk. Now, suddenly, this important new complex brings, along with its obvious religious functions, all kinds of social activity—conferences, lectures, music and drama, art exhibits, festivals, etc.—not forgetting increasing use of the inviting garden-plaza. Oakland might yet be rescued by architecture!