The Lonely God: Oakland Cathedral in the Light of Tradition

by Matthew Alderman, appearing in Volume 15

We live in an age of cathedral-building. Whether it be starchitect bunkers like Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles or simpler liturgical refits from Sydney to Sacramento, the last decade has seen a surprising upsurge in high-profile ecclesiastical projects. The newest example of the genre was completed only last September, but it had started winning awards before construction ever began. This airy glass-and-concrete truncated cone, set in a handsome lakeside location, is the Cathedral of Christ the Light, the new seat of the bishop of Oakland. The pricetag: $190 million.

The press’s reception has been a warm one, describing the finished structure as “ethereal,” “awe-inspiring,” and “a quiet retreat.” Many see it as a symbol of unity in an ethnically diverse diocese. Designed by architect Craig Hartman, a San Francisco-based member of the venerable modernist firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the cathedral’s long list of inspirations includes both the stark contemporary work of artist Richard Serra and the delicate Gothic of Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle. Mr. Hartman, who is not Catholic, has nonetheless called his participation in the project a humbling and deeply enriching experience for his spiritual life.

The interior, famously flooded with light, is dominated by a prominent altar, a central tabernacle, and a gigantic Gothic (or perhaps "Gothico-futuristic") Christ Pantocrator. Photo: Dude

While much of the media coverage has praised the design as both contemporary and elegant, others, such as project patron Bishop Allen H. Vigneron, have stressed its traditional side, describing the design in luminously orthodox terms. It will be a Christological beacon on the city skyline, the bishop has said, an “icon of icons,” “an icon for icons,” rich with liturgical symbolism. Bishop Vigneron has long been deeply concerned with the reverent, rubrical celebration of the Church’s rites, often in the face of considerable opposition, and is widely known for his doctrinal orthodoxy and pastoral abilities. As this article was being written, he was named to succeed Adam Cardinal Maida in the archbishopric of Detroit.

In spite of being a confirmed classicist, I was intrigued. Through the centuries, a multiplicity of styles have embellished the worship of the Church, while at the same time retaining a strong sense of liturgical and cultural continuity. Adapting modernistic architecture, with its secular origins and conscious rejection of historic precedent, has proven more elusive. Many modernistic ecclesiastical monuments, such as the metropolitan cathedrals of Liverpool and Brasilia, have relied on novel systems of liturgical organization and alien theological speculation, suggesting a philosophical divide running deeper than mere stylistic differences. Others, such as Perret’s Notre Dame du Raincy, applied modernistic streamlining to a traditional plan, resulting in structures, that, while not uninteresting, may invite awkward comparisons with both their ancient predecessors and contemporary rivals. Yet here was a new synthesis that might preserve the best of the past without neglecting the present and future. Had contemporary Christendom put on a white garment of churches or a beige chasu-alb? Is it possible to produce a truly successful modernistic church?

Set against the downtown backdrop, the plain glass walls of the cathedral appear indistinguishable from the monoculture of office-towers that surround them. The interior, famously flooded with light, is dominated by prominent altar, a central tabernacle and a gigantic Gothic (or perhaps “Gothico-futuristic”) Christ Pantocrator. Celebratory books and prayer-pamphlets, issued in advance of the dedication, gave witness to the rich spiritual meaning encoded in its geometry, the potent significance of its severe cathedra, altar and font. A recent visitor, oblivious to the church’s iconography, came away with a different message. She thought the cathedral was about “be[ing] one, past religions, past race, […] just all about one humanity.” Herein lies the root of the problem: Though efforts towards multicultural and community unity may be laudable, a church cannot risk appearing to transcend a sense of its own religion for the sake of a superficially broader perspective. Even inadvertently.

Beginnings: The Old Cathedral, the Earthquake, and the Beatles

Formed in 1962, the diocese of Oakland adopted the parish church of St. Francis de Sales as its cathedral rather than opting for a new structure. Shortly thereafter, the new cathedral’s guidebook recalls, a forward-facing altar was installed, while “devotional elements [were] minimized to focus on the eucharistic liturgy.” A popular center for progressive liturgical tinkering—including the playing of Beatles music at mass—the pro-cathedral continued in use until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It was razed in 1993. In late 1999, Bishop John S. Cummins, who had presided over the diocese since the late seventies, began gathering a consensus for a new cathedral as “a sign of unity among peoples.” The name Christ the Light, from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, “The Light of Nations,” was intended as a further nod to the community’s multiculturalism. Any more specific saint or Marian title might have risked the appearance of ethnic exceptionalism.

Much of the initial planning occurred during Bishop Cummins’ tenure, but ground was not broken until 2005 under Bishop Vigneron, who had succeeded the late Bishop Cummins more than a year earlier. From the beginning, the project was intended to be contemporary in style. (For contemporary in this instance, read: modernistic). A shortlist of three prominent architects—Hartman, Santiago Calatrava and Ricardo Legorreta—had been invited to participate in a complex vetting process that had included the submission of their own schematic designs for the cathedral. The winner had been Santiago Calatrava. Mr. Hartman, the architect of San Francisco airport’s new international terminal, was later selected to replace Calatrava early during Bishop Vigneron’s tenure.

The walls slant upwards on curved foundations, abruptly truncating at the top in a row of spare upright spires. Photo: Dude

Mr. Hartman’s completed design was not substantially altered from his competition proposal. However, Bishop Vigneron’s dialogue with Mr. Hartman led to the adoption of a number of liturgically traditional elements, including the addition of a figural image of Christ behind the altar, and an interior layout that was less centralized and more processional than originally proposed.

Hearing Bishop Vigneron so rigorously emphasize the design’s scrupulous liturgical planning and considering Mr. Hartman’s enthusiasm for the end result gave rise to a glimmer of hope that modernism, with a firm resolution of amendment, might finally have been Christianized. Expecting a dazzling, light-filled bit of architectural fusion cuisine, ever ancient, and ever new, further study of the finished product extinguished that glimmer. Though designed with considerable verve and elegance, the church nonetheless disappoints.

A Walk Through the Cathedral

The cathedral is seated on a vast plaza, inspired by the church squares of Catholic Europe and Latin America, and potentially the location for similarly traditional devotions. Bishop Vigneron sees it as “the site for an annual Diocesan Corpus Christi procession on the Plaza.” If not quite able to separate itself from its glassy surroundings, the church’s exterior is public in scale, with a certain degree of verticality, balance, and hierarchy. The front door, atop a monumental flight of steps, is mercifully easy to find. Still, it presents few clues to its identity beyond fragmentary abstractions: an anemic, diagrammatic cross and the pseudo-Gothic pointed arch dominating the front. The bare, stained concrete base, the so-called “relic wall,” appears curiously unfinished.

The church’s tapering silhouette is a distinctive one. The walls slant upwards on curved foundations, abruptly truncating at the top in a row of spare upright spires—or perhaps spikes is the better word. The architect calls them “architectural exclamation points.” There is little to give a sense of scale, or, in spite of the “exclamation points,” any other transitional details to relieve the eye as it moves over the structure’s vast smooth flanks.

Continuing through a shallow narthex, the visitor moves into the bulging interior of the nave. Overhead, beneath the canted glass walls, a second wooden vault of curvilinear glue-laminated Douglas Fir rafters and purlins runs from a low concrete dado up to an almond-shaped oculus dominating the ceiling. There is no real ornament, ostensibly to emphasize through the materials themselves a primordial connection to the elements. To a traditionalist’s eye, the view is not so much primal as mass-produced: dull stone flooring, an enormous latticework of yellowish wood overhead, red oak pews below, some glass, and a touch of concrete around the edges. Even Rafael Moneo’s Los Angeles Cathedral melded modernistic design with cool stone and alabaster windows.

Blonde Wood and Concrete in the Belly of the Fish

Architect Hartman’s work is predicated on his concern that traditional churches, with their great masses of ornamentation, merely get in the way of their own message. He hopes in the new cathedral congregants will come away inspired by the preaching and liturgy, and not distracted by their surroundings. The plan is ovoid, a shape known best as the vesica piscis. (The term literally means “fish bladder,” though it more closely resembles an almond.) It is meant to evoke the ichthys, the fisherman Peter, Christ’s loaves and fish, the Pacific Ocean, and the Eucharist. Like the vesica itself, the interior tends towards the tastefully geometric—a circle of eternity here, a cross there, generic enough to do duty for both Eastern and Western cultures—but none are articulate enough to be specific to any culture. Unless they are carefully pointed out, they remain as obscure as the esoteric medieval encrustations so worrisome to Mr. Hartman. The few places where a more orthodox figural approach is taken seem a late addition, disconnected from the rest of the structure. The most obvious instance is the hulking, ectoplasmic Pantocrator pixilated into what has been termed the “Omega window” looming behind the altar. The gigantic image is 58 feet high.

An impressively stark object, the baptismal font is placed at the west end of the nave, in the fashion currently popular. There is a case to be made for separate baptisteries, especially in cathedrals. That said, the location is not unprecedented, and suitably processional. A single inscription from Genesis, telling of the Spirit moving on the waters, is set into the floor. This creation theme is not misplaced, for it relates to the abstract, creation-themed “Alpha window” over the narthex, yet it feels incomplete, missing the redemptive drama of the sacrament. The visitor is confronted with the deep reality of water, but there is very little to show the still deeper transformation this element has undergone through Christ’s sacrifice. There is nothing to hold the pilgrim, save the uncommunicative fact of the font’s existence.

An impressively stark object, the baptismal font is placed at the west end of the nave, in the fashion currently popular. Photo: Dude

The vast sweep of the nave is marked by a sense of processional movement and liturgical orientation. The Pantocrator’s “Omega window” and its abstract “Alpha” equivalent on the entry façade neatly terminate the ends of the inner wood vault. The line of the twelve-foot-high concrete “relic wall” lowers the horizon somewhat, and creates a sense, not of striving upward, but of too much ceiling.

Throughout the nave, Mr. Hartman’s emphasis on light is evident. Here, the light itself becomes the symbolic ornamentation of the interior, at first glance an elegant notion. An official biography refers to a “life-altering” encounter Mr. Hartman had with Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle. Unfortunately, the vaguely-shadowed light strained through the slats is a far cry from Sainte-Chapelle. Mr. Hartman quotes Louis Kahn in relation to the cathedral, “we are born of light…we only know the world as it is evoked by light,” a pronouncement suggestive not of Christianity but a more nebulous modern spirituality. The light is beautiful, yet, without concrete figural symbolism to render it theologically articulate, it appears unlinked to Christ except in a vague, subjective manner.

Mr. Hartman has mentioned his debt to the mid-twentieth-century architect and theoretician Rudolf Schwarz, specifically the soi-disant “New Iconography” proposed in his Vom Bau der Kirche. The book was suggested to Mr. Hartman and his team by retired Skidmore, Owings and Merrill partner Walter Netsch, the architect of the Air Force Academy chapel, another of Mr. Hartman’s influences. The parti of the interior, with its open nave, ring of seating, and quasi-centralized sanctuary, is strongly reminiscent of Schwarz’s schemas, even in spite of later, more orthodox edits. Although ostensibly derived from a suitably ancient source—Christ’s life itself—the “New Iconography” is an idiosyncratic, highly personal iconography self-consciously divorced from liturgy and sacramental theology.

The Naked Sanctuary

The sanctuary consists of a raised platform at the far end of the church. Its design, and that of the other liturgical implements in the cathedral, was overseen by the project’s liturgical planner and designer, Br. William Woeger, FSC. The altar is set atop a high stepped circular predella enclosed by a lower curving platform with the ambo and cathedra. Four six-foot-high candle-stands stand at the corners of the altar. Its placement terminates the processional, directional hierarchy of the nave, an improvement over earlier, more strictly centralized designs.

The height and prominence of the altar steps is particularly successful, in contrast to most contemporary sanctuary plans, where the altar usually sits at the floor level of the chancel. The lofty candlesticks also create a certain upward movement, if somewhat diffused. But the altar’s direction primacy is undercut by the choir seating and pews that almost completely encircle it. The altar appears nearly fully in the round, and has no true overarching architectural element to celebrate or anchor it. These wooden furnishings merge visually with the low blonde wood screen that divides the sanctuary from the Eucharistic chapel placed at its back. The effect is somewhat amorphous. By way of contrast, the chancel and sanctuary of a traditional church are expressed as a specific, enclosed volume within the interior, much like the Holy of Holies within the Temple of Jerusalem. As a practical matter, the cathedral’s openness also increases the twists and turns that acolytes must take back and forth to the sacristy in the midst of a solemn mass. Such flustered coming and going in and out of the sacred precinct of the sanctuary turns liturgy from a holy tableau into a busy theater-in-the-round.

The chancel furnishings are all that a reasonably literal-minded interpretation of the General Instruction of the Roman missal might demand, and no more. Present are a large, somewhat stubby stone altar, a discreet bishop’s throne inset into a small synthronon or priests’ bench, a crucifix, and a large round ambo. Each of these elements only vaguely resembles its traditional antecedents. The ambo, the name of which is taken from the Greek word for “high place,” is a low, tub-like stone object with barely enough room for one reader, much less two candle-bearing acolytes and a thurifer. The large freestanding crucifix, placed off-center above the ambo, is misplaced, its location here inspired by the preaching crosses seen so often behind baroque pulpits. The modern altar-cross mentioned in the General Instruction, while permitted to be placed elsewhere, is the direct descendant of the small crosses placed upon the altar for priestly devotion. A pulpit cross is of secondary importance, and does not have the same effect as a cross on the altar, an arrangement that Benedict XVI has advocated.

The cathedral’s liturgical planning is not without its meritorious aspects. There is a Eucharistic Chapel, as is customary in cathedrals, separate from the sanctuary. The tabernacle is located on-axis with the altar and, inset into the screen enclosing the rear of the sanctuary, clearly visible from the nave. It may be approached from either side. In North America, where many cathedrals are effectively oversized parish churches, placing the tabernacle in the sanctuary has become the “traditional” norm, even if a separate Eucharistic Chapel has been historically preferred for cathedrals. Cathedrals often become working models for local parishes, making tabernacle placement a ticklish issue. This arrangement preserves the traditional independence of a cathedral’s reservation chapel without relegating the Eucharist to some obscure annex.

Christ, Alone on the JumboTron

Regrettably, the whole of the sanctuary—and the whole interior with it—is dwarfed by the “Omega window,” a vast expanse of translucent paneling jutting prow-like into the interior. It looks uncomfortably televisual. Neither the “Alpha window” nor the “Omega window” were meant to carry figural imagery. Bishop Vigneron nonetheless wanted a great icon of Christ over the altar to serve as the church’s liturgical nexus, a laudable addition in the abstract. It was decided to copy an image of Christ in judgment from the west portal of Chartres. This ancient sculpture would be made suitably contemporary by rendering it in a highly experimental medium. The Pantocrator is a pixilated mosaic of light strained through the 94,000 perforations of a vast expanse of aluminum panels. While a fascinating exercise in digital pyrotechnics, the result is a bit sterile.

This icon of Christ, so intimately contextualized in the hieratic symbolism of the Last Judgment, is blown completely out of proportion, looking like a ghostly over-scaled projection caught on a JumboTron. The hinge-like angle of the “Omega window” gives the figure an alarming bulge when approached from off-center. At the same time, His immense size miniaturizes everything under His feet. By comparison, the tabernacle is a tiny gold spangle, the altar almost crushed. A baldachin, even one in a matching contemporary style, might have moderated this effect by creating a frame for the exposed altar and tabernacle.

Christ is also, like much else in the interior, decontextualized and reduced to the most basic of components—a blessing hand, a book, a halo, a dominating moue under His odd medieval mustache. Gone are the sheep and goats, the ministering angels, the ite, maledicti, in ignem aeternum that made such a statue at Chartres intelligible, a living presence within its time and place. In the Temple, before the Lord had a human face, Yahweh had His tasseled curtains, ministering cherubim and palmettes. Here, Christ is a lonely postmodern fragment: Christ on display rather than Christus regnat. At first glance this might prove the architect’s concern about artistic distractions from the liturgy, yet the solution is not less, but more. Christ must be ensconced in to the liturgical-symbolic exegesis that is the Church’s great artistic heritage. Without it, He is a lonely God indeed.

The few figural sculptures scattered around the remainder of the nave feel just as disconnected. Most are tucked away in little devotional pigeonholes along the raw concrete relic wall. All the humanizing niceties of Catholic piety are discreetly hidden away here—the flickering votive candles, the ethnic patrons, the antique art. There are some real treasures here—richly polychromed Mexican neo-Baroque wood sculptures, an 18th century Peruvian Christ in the Temple, and other surprises. There’s even some old-fashioned stained-glass in the mausoleum-lined crypt, probably the most appealing part of the church. These sequestered chapels, with their bare plaster walls, might come across as a museum of outdated religious practices to the undiscerning visitor, but as the years stretch on, the “circle of devotion,” as it is being called, may end up being the liveliest part of the cathedral.

Empty Vessels

Can a truly successful modernistic church be built? The first part of the twentieth century saw some intriguing experiments in early and high ecclesial modernism, though the best were so heavily classicized with austere half-Byzantine mosaics and rich marbles that they might merely be taken for an exotically austere variety of Cistercian Romanesque. Most adhered to the orthodox basilican plan of the time, and forsook modernistic ideals of space-planning, until the advent of the centralized sanctuary and the subsequent cultural crisis that consumed the late Liturgical Movement and much of the mainstream Church.

At Oakland, there are some points worth applauding. The eminent desire to secure the services of a top-notch, high-profile locally-minded architect in an age of penny-pinching ecclesiastics is heartening, although a traditionalist may respectfully disagree with the outlook of the successful candidate. Bishop Vigneron’s guidance has led to a far more liturgically orthodox interior, for all its flaws, than many other churches being built today, including Los Angeles’s Our Lady of the Angels. Coming in to a project in progress, he may have done all that was possible to recast the interior.

The basic lineaments of the design are, if unconventional, not without elegance and wit. Further symbolic ornamentation and articulation, as well as richer and more colorful materials, could have transformed the exterior from a glass tower among glass towers to a dream of Victor Horta, the nave into a polychrome Gaudí fantasia on the hull of the barque of Peter.

Mr. Hartman and his patrons have stressed their desire that the building they erected authentically reflect their time and place. A good architect, modernist or classicist, cannot confine himself to his own era. He must look into past and future at once. Mr. Hartman admits as much when he lists his own heterogeneous influences: the primal feel of the earth, the Midwestern sixties of his boyhood, scientific progress, the sea, the simple wood of farm outbuildings, Gothic, Richard Serra, Rudolf Schwarz. But even this is not enough to ensure a unified result. Although the architect worked carefully with the bishop, liturgical designer Br. William, and the various committees to create a seamless whole, the finished design turns their divergent interests into a running debate about the value of Christian symbolism.

The celebrated unity of the cathedral is achieved at the expense of real diversity. Compared to the largely Euro-American roots of Skidmore, Owing and Merrill’s modernism, California’s indigenous family of Spanish revival styles is a veritable international rainbow—an organic and very Catholic mixture of Latin, Native American, Italianate and Moorish, with, if we stretch our minds a bit, a touch of China by way of the Manila galleon. If that is not enough, why not toss a few more lumps into the melting pot and see what happens? Next to all this local and cosmopolitan color, the cathedral seems a grey void, sterilized of all except the lowest common cultural denominators, with everything agreeably bright, cheery and ethnic hidden safely away in a side-chapel. This strategy of multicultural compromise has not worked: parishioners are currently arguing about whether or not they can sing the Our Father in Tagalog at Mass.

If she is to present a truly counter-cultural witness, the Church must proudly display her own traditional culture in all its vibrant local variations as an alternative to the artificial and homogenous productions of contemporary civilization. Mere colorless light is not enough. We need pictures. The opulent blood-reds and cobalt blues of stained glass traditionally transformed light into a riot of saintly lives and Biblical typologies. Literacy has not supplanted the human need for story, for image and symbol, touchstones far more primordial than postmodern allusions to stone and wood. Without concrete allusions to doctrine, to sacred history and the inner life of God, we will have very little on which to meditate under this unredeemed light. It may speak to the modern need for a Zen-like release from the workday world. Christian mysticism desires self-emptying, not as an exercise in aromatherapy but so God may fill up our empty vessels with Himself.