Cathedral of Christ the Light

Light Divine

Using modest materials, architecturally scaled graphics, and the sanctity of light, SOM rises to the challenge of building a timeless but contemporary urban cathedral.

When a 1989 earthquake all but destroyed the St. Francis de Sales Cathedral in Oakland, Calif., Bishop John Cummins was left with two options: remain and repair or relocate and rebuild. After deciding it would cost more to repair the cathedral than to build anew, he sold its disparate buildings to offset the costs of constructing a mixed-use campus that would consolidate a church and other services onto one site adjacent to Lake Merritt. The diocese invited a group of primarily non-U.S. architects to submit proposals, but it was the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) that won them over.

“The client directive was very simple,” says Craig Hartman, FAIA, design partner at SOM. “They wanted a building that reflected contemporary architecture and culture. That’s what made it so attractive; none of us would have wanted to do a historical building.”

A compact building plan and modest materials enobled by light and space helped lend a contemporary feel without breaking the budget. Light was an integral part of the newly renamed Cathedral of Christ the Light—and one of the key drivers for SOM’s architectural and environmental graphic design.

“A big part of sacred spaces is the nature of light,” says Hartman. “It doesn’t have to be full; it can be mysterious. When I think about cathedrals, the ones that have real power are defined generally by the quality of light and its poetic possibilities.”

Graphics: bridging past and present

Architecturally scaled graphics were designed to extend the cathedral’s contemporary aesthetic and shine a modern light on liturgical traditions. They were also intended to add to the overall sense of solace, spiritual renewal, and respite provided by the cathedral, says Lonny Israel, the SOM associate director who led the development of environmental graphics. 

The most compelling environmental element is the Omega window high above the altar, a 58-ft.-tall, modern-day reimagining of the traditional stained glass window. SOM created a dramatic, ethereal image of Christ, rendered when light enters through 94,000 laser-cut perforations on anodized-aluminum panels. At night the image is visible on the exterior façade, acting as a beacon to the city.

“We wanted to create an image that would be embedded in the architecture and be about light and the quality of the ephemeral,” says Hartman.

The idea was to create a pixilated image using computer algorithms that would imbue a grayscale image with a sense of depth, translating the subtleties of shade and shadow into pixels of light. Bishop Allen H. Vigneron suggested basing the artwork on Christ in Majesty, a 12th century high-relief sculpture on the façade of the Chartres Cathedral in France.

Using the algorithms, a grayscale image of the relief was translated into a grid of perforations laser-cut into 154 anodized-aluminum panels. More than 100 variances in the diameters of the holes determine the amount of light allowed through. According to Israel, it was critical not to remove too much material or the panels would buckle.

“The window itself is angled at the top and the surface is complex,” he explains. “So our challenge was to make this image part of the architecture.” To ensure the image would be legible, SOM created a 10- by 5-ft. acrylic mock-up in-house for client approval before ordering the panels from Enclos/Pohl in Germany.

A modern welcome

Graphic gestures elsewhere in the cathedral were designed to convey a sense of inclusive welcome while merging Catholic traditions with contemporary aesthetics. Text was embedded both literally and metaphorically. At primary thresholds, Bible verses appear as stainless-steel letters in Quay Sans typeface embedded in resin that closely matches the concrete.

Thomas Swan Sign Co., which fabricated most of the signage, invested substantial R&D to achieve the desired look for the thresholds.

“Originally, we were going to pour resin on top of the letters, but that didn’t work,” says Mike Roberts, vice president. After four rounds of trial and error, they discovered they could put a mold into the resin, pop it out, and lay stainless-steel letters in, sanding and finishing them to make them appear flush with the panels.

A dozen wall-mounted consecration candleholders feature the names of the apostles in fabricated, etched stainless-steel letters (also in Quay Sans). Other custom-designed elements extend the cathedral’s timeless yet contemporary feel. Oversized 3-ft.-long cast stainless-steel door pulls on the 12-ft. entrance doors recall the pisces shape found in the architecture. Ambry screens protecting consecrated oils are waterjet cut out of stainless steel to evoke a sense of the movement of the oils held within. And the team also custom designed S-shaped reconciliation screens and companion chairs in Douglas fir, which is used throughout the cathedral.

A fine balance

Creating a balance between present and past, as with the Omega window, was top of mind for both the client and architect. Rev. Paul D. Minnihan, Provost, says it was important the space be functional, but it also needed to work as a metaphor—what he calls a “theological unpacking of the space.”

For example, the historic notion of the “Pilgrim’s Path”—climbing a hill to reach God—is accomplished in a modern way through the upward slope of concrete from Lake Merritt to the cathedral’s plaza. The Omega window, executed in a thoroughly contemporary fashion using digital technology, uses an image that is 800 years old. Even elements inside the church, such as the stainless-steel Bible verses embedded in resin at the thresholds, use modern technologies to create something that is of the moment, yet timeless and built to last.

“You have to ask the question, ‘What is an authentic expression of a place like this?’ and the answer is that it would be inauthentic to create something like what was done in the 15th century,” concludes Hartman.

The overwhelmingly positive response—from parishioners and architecture critics alike—proves that SOM hit all the right notes. “After people have been through the building, everyone moves one step in the right direction,” Minnihan says.

--By Jenny S. Reising, segdDESIGN No. 25, 2009



Location:  Oakland, Calif.

Client:  Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland

Client Team:  Bishop Allen H. Vigneron, Rev. Paul D. Minnihan (Provost), John L. McDonnell Jr. (project director)

Design Architect and Environmental Design:  Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

Design Architects: Craig Hartman, FAIA (design partner); Gene Schnair, FAIA (managing partner); Keith Boswell (technical director)

Graphic and Product Design: Lonny Israel, Alan Sinclair, Brad Thomas, Alex Ng, Neil Katz

Design: Raymond Kuca, Patrick Daly, Eric Keune, Lisa Gayle Finster, Christopher Kimball, Jane Lee, Christina Kyrillou, Elizabeth Valadez, Denise Hall Montgomery, Mariah Neilson, Peter Jackson, Surjanto, Gary Rohrbacher, Ayumi Sugiyama, Liang Wu, Katie Mochen, Matthew Tierney, David Diamond

Structural engineers: Mark Sarkisian (structural engineering director), Peter Lee, Eric Long, Aaron Mazeika, William Bond, Ernest Vayl, Feliciano Racines, Jean-Pierre Michel Chakar, Lindsay Hu, Rupa Garai, Sarah Diegnan

Interior design: Tamara Dinsmore, Chanda Capelli, Susanne LeBlanc, Carmen Carrasco, David Lou

Architect of Record:  Kendall/Heaton Associates

Fabrication:  Enclos/Pohl (Omega window), Thomas Swan Sign Co. (signage fabrication and thresholds), Tortorelli Creations (Ambry screen), Mare Island Woodworks (reconciliation screens and chairs), Marirose Jelicich (consecration candles), Andrew Bonnette (bronzework), Tice Industries (doors and door pulls)

Consultants:  Br. William Woeger (liturgical consultant), Rev. Ron Schmidt (sacred art and design), Marirose Jelicich (liturgical metalwork)

Photos:  Cesar Rubio, Timothy Hursley


Jury comments

“Most compelling is the innovative use of modest materials, coupled with filtered natural light and sparing use of finely carved design details. The graphic elements add a rich simplicity to this otherwise spare volume punctuated with rich light and images. Bare concrete and stainless steel accents give way to a serene volume and the balanced warmth of natural light. Nothing but serene reflection is possible here.”

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