The Cathedral of Christ the Light / SOM
Set on a prominent, two-block site overlooking Oakland’s Lake Merritt, the 1350-seat cathedral is the centerpiece of a 224,000-square-foot complex that includes a mausoleum, conference center, administrative offices, bishop’s and clergy residences, bookstore, café, and community-serving ministries. The design gives special consideration to the Cathedral Center’s physical and cultural place within the city of Oakland.
A landscaped public plaza, accessible from all directions, firmly links the center with the city’s commercial downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Within the cathedral, the experience of light and space, rather than traditional iconography, instills a deep sense of sacredness.
The Cathedral honors the devotion and craftsmanship that unifies the world’s great religious landmarks, using advanced technologies to achieve a luminous and evocative architecture with modest materials while minimizing the building’s ecological footprint.
The thermal mass of the cathedral’s base—made of resource-conserving slag and fly-ash concrete—helps to efficiently heat and cool the occupied, lower strata of the interior volume. Rising above, sustainably harvested Douglas fir ribs and louvers add warmth while providing protective structural elasticity. An enclosure of frit-coated, translucent, and clear low-E glass modulates daylight and heat gain within and captures the natural shifting of light throughout the day. (Artificial lighting is only needed at night.) Finally, an advanced structural system, which includes base isolation, is designed to withstand a 1,000-year earthquake, preserving the cathedral for centuries.
Behind the altar, the Omega Window incorporates one of the cathedral’s most dramatic elements: a reinterpretation of a 12th-century depiction of Christ rendered in anodized aluminum panels and 94,000 pixel-like perforations using a custom-programmed digital process. In keeping with the cathedral’s elemental nature, the striking presence of the 58-foot-tall image relies simply on the play of light penetrating through the different sized perforations.
The Cathedral of Christ the Light has already won several design awards, including a 2009 AIA National Honor Award, and has received recognition in notable publications. The New Yorker’s Paul Goldberger included the Cathedral in his list of 2008’s ten best works of architecture, stating:
“The new Cathedral of Christ the Light, in Oakland, by Skidmore partner Craig Hartman, houses a sanctuary that is at once warm and minimalist: a high, curving room lined in wood latticework set within a glass structure, it is a true work of modernist monumental civic grandeur.”
Statement from the Architect:
The Cathedral of Christ the Light provides a sanctuary in the broadest sense of the word. Located in downtown Oakland, this house of worship offers a sense of solace, spiritual renewal, and respite from the secular world.
The Cathedral employs a non-linear approach to honor the church’s 2,000-year history without forcing a specific point of view. By stripping away received iconography, the design positions symbolic meaning within contemporary culture. The approachable result remains open to the region’s ever-changing multi-cultural makeup and to the future.
As its name suggests, the Cathedral draws on the tradition of light as a sacred phenomenon. Through its poetic introduction, indirect daylight ennobles modest materials—primarily wood, glass, and concrete. With the exception of evening activities, the Cathedral is lit entirely by daylight to create an extraordinary level of luminosity.
The lightest ecological footprint was always a core design objective. Through the highly innovative use of renewable materials, the building minimizes the use of energy and natural resources. The structure’s concrete makes use of industrial waste fly ash, a byproduct of coal production that requires less energy to produce than cement. An advanced version of the ancient Roman technique of thermal inertia maintains the interior climate with mass and radiant heat.
Douglas Fir, obtained through certified harvesting processes, has proven to be aesthetically pleasing, economically sound, and structurally forgiving—the wood’s surfaces add warmth while its elasticity allows for the bending and returning of shape during seismic activity. Through the use of advanced seismic techniques, including base isolation, the structure will withstand another 1,000- year earthquake. The Cathedral of Christ the Light, a building for the ages, will endure for centuries rather than decades.