Skidmore, Owings & Merrill create a place of refuge for Oakland’s Catholic community
Located in downtown Oakland at a highly visible location on the edge of Lake Merritt, this 250,000 sf house of worship has fostered economic revitalisation in West Oakland by transforming a surface parking lot into a place of solace, renewal and respite from the secular world.
The client challenged the design team to create a building for the ages. A non-linear approach honours the church’s 2,000-year history without forcing a specific point of view. As a result, the 1,350-seat sanctuary, with its side chapels, baptistery, health and legal clinics and dependencies, will fulfill its social mission and honour its religious and civic obligations to the Roman Catholic Diocese and the City of Oakland for centuries to come.
The region’s 500,000 Catholics now have a central cathedral, something they have been without since the loss of the historic St. Francis de Sales Cathedral to the Loma Prieta earthquake. The Cathedral is part of a larger complex woven together by gardens and a public plaza, which provide a tranquil and welcome physical place for a diverse mix of constituents to congregate. Praising its design as well as its cultural and civic role within the city, the Oakland Planning Commission granted unanimous approval of the project in 2004.
The Cathedral creates a positive community by supplying public services to those in need, including a free health clinic that affords diagnostic health care for persons without insurance. In the first year, the clinic served over 1,500 people who would have gone without care. The Cathedral’s legal justice clinic provides free legal consultation, and a host of lawyers offer pro bono counsel for those grappling with issues such as immigration and domestic violence. Conferences at the Cathedral cover topics like housing, violence and senior care, while the public open spaces and garden provide a tranquil and welcome physical place for these diverse constituents to congregate. The Cathedral of Christ also employs innovative technologies to create a lightness of space.
The approachable result remains open to the region’s ever-changing multi-cultural make-up and to the future. An overarching goal of the project was to create a space that resonates with the Cathedral’s specific temporal, physical and cultural place. In consideration of the traditions of Bay Area interior architecture, the most elemental qualities of light, material and form were used to create sacred space within an ethos of sustainability.
As its name suggests, the Cathedral of Christ the Light draws on the tradition of light as a sacred phenomenon. Through its poetic introduction, indirect daylight ennobles modest materials — primarily wood, glass and concrete. Triangular aluminium panels form the petal-shaped Alpha Window, which diffuses light 100 feet above the Cathedral’s entrance. The Omega Window resonates with the surrounding structure metaphorically and physically through its experimental use of light. The strength and legibility of the image itself is affected by the brightness of light — the ephemeral image fades or reveals itself depending upon the day’s qualities of light. At night, the image is visible on the exterior façade and acts like a beacon in the city. The Omega window re-imagines a 12th-century depiction of Christ from the façade of Chartres Cathedral in France, creating a visual link to early Christendom within a contemporary setting and fulfilling a request from the Oakland Diocese for a direct physical connection to the Church’s traditions through a work of art.
An algorithm was developed to translate the subtleties of shade and shadow into pixels of light and, in turn, replicate the image. The digital information guided laser technology to cut over 94,000 pixels into the window’s triangular aluminium panels. In order to achieve a nuanced sense of depth, the perforations included a range of 100 different diameters.
The side chapels adjacent to the main sanctuary space speak to the City of Oakland’s diverse cultural make-up through the unique expression of multiple artistic voices. Paintings from the School of Cuzco, contemporary statues and other works of art draw upon California’s Latin American heritage in vivid colors and expressive gestures. The poetic articulation of light remains a common theme here as raking light transmits a sense of spiritual mystery. Daylight shines through ground-level slot openings and reflects back on the canted chapel wall to create a floating quality for the bracket-mounted paintings. Twenty-six 110-ft Douglas fir ribs curve to the roof, while horizontal Douglas fir louvers attach to the ribs. Green ceramic fritted glass panels jacket the Cathedral’s outer shell to insulate the building, reduce glare and change the quality of light throughout the day and seasons.
With a building form based on an inner wooden vessel contained within a veil of glass — both of which are anchored on an architectural concrete base — the design conveys an inclusive statement of welcome while recalling the narrative of Noah and his ark. The Mausoleum drops in elevation to give the feeling of descending into the catacombs below the Cathedral.
The crucifix at the end of the processional ramp originates from one of the Diocese’s parishes. It was refinished and placed here as a symbol of the communities that the Cathedral serves. A circle of glass illuminates the catafalque from the altar of the sanctuary above, bringing daylight into the Mausoleum space. This catafalque, a white granite table, served as the original St. Francis de Sales Cathedral’s altar and was recovered for placement here. Glass-front niches were designed for personalization — families may place meaningful artifacts here for remembrance and viewing. Six stained glass pieces and a former altar from Oakland’s original St. Francis de Sales Cathedral were also recovered and restored for display within this reverent space.
As an extension of the Cathedral’s fundamental architectural concept, the Great Doors are inscribed with embedded and adjoining circles. Each door carries a fragment of this circular geometry. The doors close and the circles interlock to form a Vesica Piscis, or Mandorla, an ancient symbol considered sacred by early mathematicians. The cast stainless steel door handles emerge directly from the Mandorla of the Great Doors, with their curvature precisely following its radius. The surface texture, a result of computer algorithms and a computer-driven milling machine, is a topographic map of the spiraling Fibonacci sequence. From the very beginning, the lightest ecological footprint was a core design objective.
Through the highly innovative use of renewable materials and other sustainable design strategies, the building minimizes the use of energy and natural resources. With the exception of evening activities, the Cathedral is entirely lit by daylight to create an extraordinary level of luminosity. The structure’s concrete makes use of industrial waste fly ash, a by-product of coal production that would otherwise go to landfills. The reuse of this material provides a better adhesive while reducing waste. An advanced version of the ancient Roman technique of thermal inertia maintains the interior climate with radiant heat, while small ducts beneath the pews cool the building from the floor.
The Diocese challenged the design team to create a building for the ages. Through the use of advanced seismic techniques, including base isolation, the structure has been designed to withstand a 1,000-year earthquake. As a result, the Cathedral of Christ the Light will endure for centuries rather than decades.
The great doors of The Cathedral of Christ the Light opened on 25 September 2008. The Cathedral – which includes a house of worship – has proven to be an epicentre of gentrification in West Oakland that has fostered economic revitalization, even in these financially strained times. During the Cathedral’s construction, other high-density, mixed-use structures followed the project's development programme by replacing empty parking lots with active, urban spaces.
The Cathedral creates a positive community addition by supplying public services to those in need in the East Bay, including a free health clinic that affords diagnostic health care for people without insurance. In the first year, the clinic served over 1,500 people who otherwise would have gone without care. Staffed by volunteer medical professionals, the clinic fosters positive interaction among users, creating a community of life and health for all involved. A legal justice clinic at the Cathedral further supports the well being of the broader community, providing free legal consultation. A host of lawyers offer pro bono counsel for those grappling with issues such as immigration and domestic violence.
The Cathedral’s plaza is the connective tissue for all the community services provided at the Cathedral. Conferences at the Cathedral cover topics like housing, violence, and senior care; people come for lunch, services, rest, concerts and the arts. Here in the urban labyrinth of Oakland, this open plaza is a sign of the community’s embrace of the Cathedral complex. The Cathedral of Christ the Light is a beacon of hope and light in Oakland and beyond.