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SOM's Oakland Cathedral Finally Breaks Ground

Image Courtesy SOM San Francisco

After years of uncertainty, the heavens finally aligned for the groundbreaking in May of the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California. Craig Hartman, FAIA, of the San Francisco office of Skidmore Owings and Merrill took over the $131 million project in October 2003 following original architect Santiago Calatrava FAIA’s withdrawal over budget concerns. Further delays ensued when this site selected by the Oakland Diocese could not be initially secured.

The program for the 100,000 square foot Cathedral Center— located on the northern edge of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland—includes a main sanctuary with a seating capacity of 1500, smaller chapels, a baptistery, parish hall, diocese offices, conference center, rectory, library, café and public plaza, designed by Peter Walker and Partners. Hartman's scheme is loaded with liturgical meanings, developed after extensive research into Catholic ritual, symbol and architectural space. Most crucially, the basket-like building replaces the hierarchical plan of early cathedrals in favor of a circular arrangement of congregants around the altar, maintaining the sense of community and inclusion dictated by Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Additionally, the cathedral's roof vaults form a Vesica Pisces shape—the sacred geometry formed by the intersection of two circles—symbolically highlighting God's descent to earth.

The budget has been a challenge in the cathedral's development, Hartman acknowledges, requiring an editing of design elements and an ambitious use of technology. The cathedral's 120-foot tall main vaults are made from Douglas fir, and encased in a ceramic frit coated glass skin. The concrete reliquary wall at the base will be textured using molds fabricated with computer controlled milling machines. "The intent is to use light to ennoble modest materials," Hartman explains. "It's really all about making space that is somehow emotive."

Andrew Blum