The following excerpt comes from a story, “A Tale of Two Cathedrals,” about the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston and the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland. The article was originally printed in Chiesa Oggi in 2009 and re-printed in Crisis magazine on August 29, 2012. It was written by Nikos Salingaros, an architectural theorist, a long-time associate of Christopher Alexander, and a mathematical physicist at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

….The Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, by Skidmore Owings & Merrill Architects, is a postmodernist innovation, expressing new forms and typologies. It presents one of many possible answers to the question of “how can we extend the traditional ecclesiastical typology using new methods?” At first glance, it is a very successful innovation indeed, creating space, light, and a feeling of openness, as an attractive alternative to neo-traditional designs. The materials are certainly innovative and play a major role in the impression the worshiper experiences inside the Cathedral. The Church is pressured both by its members and by its administration to appear innovative and not retrograde, so such a commission is seen as an advance in the sponsorship of contemporary forms for Church architecture….
The Oakland Cathedral gives free reign to a very interesting wooden slat typology that rises up to the sky to define a very large interior space, open and full of light. This is the sort of thing an innovative architect would like to do when liberated from the need to build a traditional church volume. But when I ask some key design questions, the answers seem elusive. Why are the wooden slats horizontal instead of vertical? Are we not trying to connect vertically to the universe, to transcend the materiality of this building so that our souls can rise upwards? Curious: maybe the slats have to shade the worshippers from the direct sun; I don’t know. A lot of effort was put into the adjustable roof curtain panels, but was all of this technology necessary? Why not just build a simple roof in the first place? Technology becomes the principal focus here.

The building’s entrance is unfortunately low, horizontal, and deeply recessed. Altogether not very inviting, since you have to pass under a thick concrete overhang that looks and feels uncomfortably heavy.

And there are the strange, not to say stubborn asymmetries. Why do some components extend outwards into the church interior? What is the reason for the large glass wall and ceiling? Why are the concrete walls on the ground level curved, and how is this specific curvature determined? Why the inconsistency in the door sizes and orientations cut into the concrete wall? I’m sorry but I cannot see any obvious answer to these questions, and if it is not obvious from the geometry itself, I am not going to believe any invented explanation by the architects. Could it be that they are playing here with images of modernity and post-modernity? In that case, all of these games detract from the original purpose of the building, which is to connect people with God. I have a hint at an answer that disturbs me, although I cannot be sure: the use of brutalist concrete. This material is, in my opinion, fundamentally unholy. Gray, damp, and acoustically hard, it represents the opposite of the welcoming surface of a place of worship. For millennia, church surfaces were finished in materials that conveyed a love for the Creator. I see no love in this most unfriendly material, the precedent set by Le Corbusier notwithstanding.

I’m sorry, but there seems to be sufficient reason to suspect that the Oakland Cathedral is not as innovative as it would at first appear. The reason I’m saying this is that the architects have resorted to using typologies from the modernist form language, the one that eliminated the Vienna Secession and the Art-Deco form languages in the 1920s. Brutalist concrete is the “dead” giveaway. From the outside, the building does not distinguish itself from any other glass-and-steel high-rise: another example of architectural conformity. Maybe it’s not an office building because it is round instead of a rectangular box, but then it is more likely a theater or sports arena. The metal rods sticking up from the roof are purely decorative, and add no spiritual meaning to the structure. They provide no lightness or upwards directionality as in the case of Gothic pinnacles. We have the inclusion of a post-modernist incongruence where different materials meet, and deconstructivist elements in the slanting door openings in the raw concrete base. Harmony is avoided because walls slant, doors do not align, elements are unmatched with respect to each other; the overall impression is one of missed coherence. This effect is architecturally “fashionable”, but that does not make it appropriate. It is used in museums of contemporary art, where the art objects themselves are often just as twisted and incoherent as the building that houses them.

The wooden slats at and near ground level lend some natural ambience to the interior space, but there is so much concrete that this positive natural element is overwhelmed. More important, the geometries of the forms created by the wooden slats on the ground floor seem hardly rational: curved, leaning see-through walls, for what possible reason? It all seems so arbitrary, so very “design”. Some people may get excited over this, but I find it unharmonious….

To read original story, click here.