From the outside, it appears galactic. It sits on the plaza like a spaceship that has just landed, and I’m not going to lie to you, I was not loving it.
But when you wander inside and you are wrapped with the warm tones of the wood and the beautiful filter of light through the slats, the whole building resonates with feelings of home and protection and best of all, wonder.
It stands as a little sanctuary in the rise of the city outside its door. And although the materials are not always the most comforting – the overall effect is that of stillness.
After the first suffered serious earthquake damage, a competition was held for a new church. Calatrava was selected as the architect, but by the time the funding was raised, his design had fell out of favor. From there, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill won the job and Craig Hartman became the lead architect on the project.
It all starts by utilizing the site to its advantage. In my approach from the city center, the cathedral appeared uninterrupted (and alien). Standing there at first you have no idea that there is also a mausoleum, parish hall, conference center, public garden, library, rectory housing and free legal and health clinic in the same 250,000 square foot complex. The adjacent Lake Merritt is sixteen feet lower than the rest of the city, and thoughtfully the rest of the program is tucked underground (in the same plane as the lake), while the cathedral is elevated on a raised ground plane. By using this technique, it demands attention.
Believing that a Gothic cathedral was not relevant in modern-day Oakland (nor would it be honest to modern architecture), the design is something fresh. Inspired by Catholic imagery (like fishes), the plan of the church is a vesica piscis (fish bladder) shape (or for the rest of us who has no idea what that means, it is the intersection of two circles). The round shape hopes to foster more community than the traditional cross.
This plan concept allows the wood walls to cup the sanctuary like two hands. Which is not just beautiful in thought, but also in feeling. Those wood shells play two roles, beauty and function. They serve as the primary support for the walls and glass, while they transform the interior into a comforting space.
And although the materials (wood, slag concrete, and glass) are not what comes to mind when one thinks of a cathedral, the essence of the space is. Hartman is not alone in realizing that any space can feel spiritual if it has the right characteristics. You can feel God more in the woods, with light filtering through the trees, than you can in some churches unfortunately. By creating a structure that contained that poetic quality of light, any material could be ennobled. And it is.
Since this is a modern cathedral, efforts were made to reduce energy and also protect the building from earthquakes. The concrete walls used for the first fifteen feet create a thermal mass that allow them to maintain an interior climate with relatively passive cooling. The windows and wood slats, allow for tons of natural light, while shading the building from getting too much heat. The entire building is also seismically isolated, which means that it will be protected in an earthquake.
And while all the design methods have ecological impact, they have lasting emotional impact too. This building changes throughout the day. The light moves, the shadows shift, the interior glows or appears solid. The image of Christ himself seems to glow from the light of the exterior in different ways. It is restful, meditative, calming, and inspiring.
It is a space you want to be in, because it is clear that it has been thought out and pondered over and loved.
A little more than a year ago, I was exploring Oakland looking for cool architecture. With my love of churches, it was not surprising that I would end up here, but what was surprising was how impressed I was by it.
In general, I lean towards the traditional. I love those gothic vaults and the detail that goes with them. Give me stained glass and I am more than happy. But occasionally, like with that little church in Germany (catch that one here if you missed it), these much more modern sanctuary give me the same pause.
It’s the rule in modern architecture that simple is always better. This is a rule that I do not always embrace. Architecture should be inspired by life, and in turn inspire it. Life is not simple. Sometimes the harsh simplicity of modern architecture strikes me as cold and unfeeling.
But, occasionally, in buildings like this. Simplicity shines. It allows small moves to create big impact.