Oakland’s Luminous New Cathedral
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, established in 1962, was strongly influenced by the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council. Subsequently, the diocese took the name of its new cathedral, Christ the light, from the council document, Lumen Gentium (Light of All People.) The inclusion of the word, light, in the name inspired the architects at the San Francisco office of SOM to design the cathdral as the embodiment of light. Thus, the building now nearing completion on the west shore of Lake Merritt is wrapped in translucent walls that convey the impression of layered light.
In 2003, the design and construction process of the cathedral complex began on its 2.53-acre site. To provide maximum daylight year-round, the building was oriented southeast/northwest. The entrance faces Lake Merritt at the end of a walkway rising from the intersection of Harrison and 21st Streets. Inside the entrance, the baptismal font reminds visitors that baptism is the rite of entry to church membership. Seating for 1500 people is arranged in a semi-circular plan centered on the altar at the church’s north end. Space for the choir and an organ is located behind the altar along with a Eucharist chapel for eighty people. The chapel is separated from the sanctuary by a curved wall of wood blocks. A crypt is located on the floor beneath the altar, a common arrangement in many important churches around the world. Light is drawn down to the crypt through openings in the floor around the altar.
The interior, shaped vertically by the tilted-up sides of the ellipse, is enclosed by a wall composed of two structural layers. The convex inner layer is divided by curved glue-laminated wooden ribs into segments filled with laminated wood slats. As the wall rises, the space between the slats widens to increase the amount of daylight entering the building. The change of the slats’ angle relative to the floor also allows more views of the outside while reducing direct solar heat gain to the lower zone occupied by the congregation. This louvered layer ends approximately fifteen feet above the floor. The outermost layer is a curtain wall made of an aluminum and glass grid that protects the wooden layers from the weather. The curtain wall’s aluminum mullions continue above the roof to create a crown of finials The width of the space between the wall’s two layers decreases from twelve feet at their base to three feet at the top. The layers are interconnected by continuous tension members of galvanized steel rods and discontinuous compression members of tapered wood struts. This so-called tensegrity system, famously used by Buckminster Fuller in his spherical structures, enables each member to operate with maximum efficiency and economy