Walk past this building next to Lake Merritt and you’ll probably do a double take – it looks like something between a spaceship and an ice sculpture, and is undeniably other-worldly. The Cathedral of Christ the Light, also known as Oakland Cathedral, is one of the Bay Area’s most interesting modern buildings. Read on to discover what makes it so unique.
Architecture and design
The Cathedral of Christ the Light is decidedly more modern than it is classical, and some traditional religious groups have been known to balk at the design’s divergence from custom. Simultaneously, the cathedral has been lauded for fostering a welcoming environment for the diverse population of Oakland.
The building itself is essentially a massive tapered cylinder with a wedge cut out of one side, coated in glossy glass paneling that glimmers in the sun and evokes a brilliant golden lantern effect at night. It’s topped by a crown of rigid spires, which the architect called “architectural exclamation points.”
Step inside and you’ll see the structure is based around a vesica piscis (“fish bladder” in Latin), which is the almond shape created by two intersecting circles of equal radius. The shape is visible externally in the building’s cut-out, but it’s more pronounced when viewed from within. Despite its stark elements, the cathedral’s symmetry brings about a soothing harmonious quality.
If you take a walk around the cathedral, its placement is striking. The circular building contrasts pleasantly against a right-angled cityscape, with Oakland’s Lake Merritt serving as a sort of natural reflecting pool. A modest garden on the cathedral’s grounds is dedicated as a healing space for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
Theme of light
Christianity’s “feeding the multitude” miracle, in which Jesus fed a crowd of five thousand people with just 5 loaves of bread and two fish, inspired the cathedral’s oblong, scaled composition. A series of overlapping wooden panels extends gracefully upward from the nave like the scales of a fish, creating dappled patterns of natural light that shift throughout the day. The massive “Omega” window above the altar bears a luminous 58-foot depiction of Christ and is echoed by the “Alpha window” across from it. The ceiling bears an almond-shaped oculus composed of 140 aluminum panels that allow stark slivers of light through.
This focus on light was an intentional design element echoed even in the naming of the cathedral–by avoiding fixation on any specific saint, the space is meant to more proactively welcome Oakland’s diverse population of worshipers.
As much as this theme is celebrated, it’s also been criticized for its abstractness. Matthew Alderman of the Institute of Sacred Architecture wrote, “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.”
History of the cathedral
Oakland’s Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales served the city starting in 1893 until it was irreparably damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The Catholic Cathedral Corporation of the East Bay put on a design competition for its replacement, eventually choosing architect Craig W. Hartman for a design that broke ground in 2005
Hartman is also known for designing the international terminal at SFO, where you can see similarities in his use of curved metal shapes filled with glass panes to allow for maximum natural light. In designing Oakland’s cathedral, he had the added responsibility of creating the world’s first cathedral built entirely in the 21st century. The project’s healthy budget of $175 million perhaps eased this burden of duty, but also drew more criticism from local organizations suggesting that the funds were needed to build more schools, among other things.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Bishop Allen Vigneron responded, “The cathedral is an occasion and catalyst for the rededication of Catholics of the East Bay.” Reverend Leo Edgely Jr. added, “You can go to Europe and see Gothic cathedrals… you can come to Oakland and see this.”
Construction of the cathedral began in 2005 and finished in 2008, with Bishop Vigneron consecrating and dedicating the cathedral that same year. Bishop Floyd Begin, who served as Bishop of Oakland from 1962 until his death in 1977, was reburied in the cathedral’s mausoleum soon after.
See it for yourself
The Cathedral of Christ the Light has mass in English at 12:10pm on weekdays, 5pm on Saturdays, and 11am on Sundays. They also have a Vietnamese mass on Sundays at 8am and a Spanish mass on Sundays at 1:30pm.
Doors are open from 6:30am-8pm Monday-Saturday, and 7am-7pm on Sundays. Find the cathedral at 2121 Harrison Street on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland.
Featured image: cdrin via Shutterstock