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The Architectural Paradox: SOM’s Oakland Cathedral of Ch...

The Architectural Paradox: SOM’s Oakland Cathedral of Christ the Light

Derived from the Greek word Katholicos, the word catholic means “universal” or “all-embracing.” This is an interesting paradox for a religion with an often authoritative past and history of exclusion. A paradox is a statement which contradicts itself but may be true. Unlike “drowning in a the fountain of eternal life” or “jumbo shrimp” the

Cathedral of Christ the Light exterior, Oakland, California.

Derived from the Greek word Katholicos, the word catholic means “universal” or “all-embracing.” This is an interesting paradox for a religion with an often authoritative past and history of exclusion. A paradox is a statement which contradicts itself but may be true. Unlike “drowning in a the fountain of eternal life” or “jumbo shrimp” the paradoxes in this post serve as more subjective contradictions. It can even be argued that the city of Oakland is a paradox itself. As a city branded by a reputation of being rough and non-inclusive, it is dramatically transforming into a destination point and unique community. While San Francisco becomes the playground of the rich, Oakland houses a diverse community of artists, musicians, designers, local businesses, and restaurants. Although Oakland’s residents may protest the comparison, some say that Oakland is to San Francisco as Brooklyn is to Manhattan.

Within these paradoxes lies another: Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light. Originally intended to be designed by the famous structural magician Santiago Calatrava, the project was passed on to one of the largest architecture and engineering firms in the world, Skidmore, Owings, & Merill (SOM). For an architectural history recap, SOM has been one of the firms at the forefront of the “International Style” defined by contemporary rectilinear lines and forms void of ornamentation. You may recognize their body of work, which includes the One World Trade Center in New York, the John Hancock building, and the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest structure, measuring 2,722 ft).

Cathedral of Christ the Light main alter, Oakland, California.

Oakland, California's cathedral, Oakland Cathedral of Christ the Light, is the first cathedral built in the 21st century. It has been abstracted into a modern structure still holding to an International style approach. Aside from a glowing, 58 foot tall perforated Romanesque Christ on aluminum panels, the interior is free of the traditional iconography often populating the walls of Catholic churches. The cathedral serves as a symbol of spiritual connectivity through the interaction of light and materiality. A reinforced concrete base holds a 136 foot ascension of glass, wood, and steel. Light passes through the effortless structure, fully illuminating its interior. The manipulation of light within the cathedral is an echo of the European and Gothic cathedrals in which the church used light as a vehicle for awe. A theatrical play of light through elaborate stained glass windows was a way of making the earth-bound feel connected to a higher power.

Interior structure of Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California

Oakland’s Cathedral manages to maintain both an ephemeral and connective quality. As such, it is an architectural paradox. Architecture is a transient object. It may give the illusion of permanence, but it is impermanent. The Cathedral of Christ the Light appears weightless and fragile, yet it will stand for centuries to come. It is built with sustainably harvested douglas fir wood, which is structurally elastic and resilient to seismic events. A seismic base isolation system stabilizes the structure during earthquakes with a steel friction-pendulum moving in rhythmic motions. Still a distant cry to the immortal structure, but inspiring all the same. With the alternative utilization of materials in structure and redefining what architecture can be, we may someday have a building which will live forever, which is in itself a contradiction.

What other structures push the boundaries of what architecture can be? How are they defining the field through the use of new building technologies?

Credits: Images by Lauren Golightly. Data linked to sources.

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Lauren Golightly is a graduate of the University of New Mexico with a degree in Architecture and Art History. Her studies in art history are based in architectural history, theory and criticism, and focus on modern and contemporary influences. A back...

  • Constant Cap

    Nice piece of architecture.

    ‘a religion with an often authoritative past and history of exclusion’ could have done with a hyperlink… so that we know what you mean.

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