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Unusual Oakland cathedral draws praise, fire

Some find the glass and wood structure inspiring, but others believe the $190 million needed to build it could be put to better use.

September 02, 2007|From the Associated Press

OAKLAND -- A maze of wooden planks and glass panes is gradually taking shape among the austere office buildings of downtown Oakland.

To passersby puzzling over the curious structure -- alternately described as a beehive, an inverted basket or a nuclear reactor -- only an inconspicuous sign on a fence offers a clue that it will soon be one of the nation's most ambitious, and expensive, religious sites.

Upon completion in fall of 2008, the $190-million Cathedral of Christ the Light will be the centerpiece of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, which lost its old cathedral to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The project already has drawn attention for its high cost and modernist design.

More than 1,000 sheets of glass will cloak a skeleton of Douglas fir, forming a luminous 12-story dome inspired by the fish shape known as the vesica piscis, an ancient symbol of Christianity.

In addition to the 1,300-seat cathedral, the 2 1/2 -acre site will house the diocesan offices, the bishop's residence, a conference center and a garden plaza that will be open to the public.

Within the 60,000-ton concrete foundation -- built to protect the structure against earthquakes -- lies a mausoleum that can contain 2,700 crypts and urns.

The estimated cost, $131 million in 2003 when the design was chosen, has increased since officials accounted for inflation and construction expenses not initially included. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, built for $189.5 million, also raised questions about its design.

The concept for Christ the Light came as part of a building boom among Catholic dioceses around 2000, when about two dozen cathedral renovation or construction projects were underway nationwide, said Duncan Stroik, an architecture professor at Notre Dame University who specializes in cathedral design.

But building slowed as priest sex-abuse settlements forced some dioceses into bankruptcy. The Oakland diocese took out a loan to cover half its $56.4-million settlement with 56 sex-abuse victims in 2005. The cathedral, however, was financed by donations solicited specifically for the project, a separate pool from the money used to settle those cases, officials said.

Bishop Allen Vigneron, whose diocese serves more than 500,000 parishioners, envisions Christ the Light generating "new energy for us as a church community."

"The cathedral is an occasion and catalyst for the rededication of Catholics of the East Bay," he said.

Some say a better catalyst would have been spending the money on other community-improvement projects, such as building new schools or combating violence in a city that experienced a 57% spike in homicides last year.

"Should we give to organizations that help people daily or to a facade that to me is embarrassing and a disgrace?" Virginia Everist, a parishioner from Moraga, asked in a letter to the diocese newspaper.

Vigneron points out that the diocese also spends $350 million annually on social services.

Still, the diocese came under fire in January when it announced that the fundraising campaign for a new Catholic high school in Livermore would be temporarily halted to allow officials to focus on raising money for the cathedral's completion. A little more than $100 million had been pledged to the cathedral as of June, officials said.

Parishioner Nancy Morgan of Livermore, who said local parents have been clamoring for a new school for decades, questioned the diocese's priorities.

"It just seems to me that the high school should have been built already. And if it had been, it wouldn't have been in conflict with the cathedral," Morgan said.

Vigneron said the diocese would move forward with the high school but needed to take one project at a time.

"It's about going about things responsibly," he said.

The cost may seem high, until it's compared to other community projects, such as museums or sports stadiums, said Richard Kieckhefer, a Northwestern University religion professor who wrote "Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantine to Berkeley."

The De Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park carried the same price tag when it opened to much acclaim in 2005, and a new ballpark in Fremont for the Oakland Athletics is projected to cost $500 million.

"You have to judge a cathedral differently from an ordinary parish church," Kieckhefer said. "It stands as a cultural work that can provide a source of beauty and inspiration for the general public."

Vigneron said a grand cathedral also could generate interest and investment in the church.

"Beauty is one of the principle qualities of God's own being," Vigneron said. "The cathedral is a testament that there's a reason to hope."

That beauty, however, is another point of contention.

Light is central to the design of the cathedral, which would bathe visitors in filtered sunshine by day and glow against an urban backdrop by night.

Architect Craig Hartman said he was inspired by "the mystery and poetry of light" when creating the cathedral's soaring arches topped by a clear glass ceiling.

"This building is about making space out of lightness and air," Hartman said. The San Francisco-based architect was selected in a competition after the diocese parted ways with Spain's Santiago Calatrava, whose vision was considerably more avant-garde and expensive.

Hartman's design has piqued the interest of architects and theologians alike, inspiring a course on cathedral architecture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and earning Hartman an award from the American Institute of Architects' San Francisco chapter in 2003.

But although some praise its innovation, traditionalists have questioned its fidelity to Catholic doctrine. Postings on blogs and Internet discussion forums call the project a "monstrosity of modernity" and "iconoclasm gone wild."

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