Parallels between Chch and US cathedrals

17:00, Apr 27 2013
Cathedral contemporary design
OPTION 3: This contemporary design for a new Cathedral is attracting attention.

A Catholic cathedral in Oakland, California, has provided inspiration for - perhaps - the new heart of Christchurch. PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.

The Loma Prieta earthquake tore through northern California in 1989, shaking the ground for 10 to 15 seconds, killing 63 people and doing extensive damage to bridges, roads and buildings. Much of the worst damage was in built-up areas around San Francisco Bay, including Oakland.

This could be sounding like a familiar story by now. One of the casualties was a 96-year-old Gothic brick church, the Catholic diocese of Oakland's Cathedral of St Francis De Sales. Rather than simply rebuild, the diocese opted to be even more radical: it built a new cathedral on an entirely new site. In 2008, the Cathedral of Christ the Light opened on the shores of Oakland's Lake Merritt and it is already regarded as one of the greatest of contemporary church buildings.

Christ the Light cathedral
Oakland's Christ the Light cathedral.

It has been called the first cathedral to be built in the 21st century, and that has become a symbolic value as well as a chronological fact. It says to others that this is the future of church buildings.

When the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, Victoria Matthews, Warren and Mahoney architects Bill Gregory and Blair Johnston, Anglican theologian Lynda Patterson and project manager Marcus Read went on an international study tour to the US, UK and Europe last June, Oakland was naturally one of their stops. They were on the look-out for inspiring, modern church design. They wanted to know what new kinds of sacred space would look like. They scrutinised two cathedrals across the bay in San Francisco - the Catholic St Mary's and the Anglican Grace Cathedral - but, if the modern design released by Matthews and the architects this month is any indication, Christ the Light made by far the deepest impression.

Most would agree that the Warren and Mahoney architects have been strongly influenced by the Oakland design. Compare the curved structure that reminds some of an overturned boat, the glass cladding and the concrete, the timber interior that fills with light. In Oakland, a 58ft (17.6 metres) image of Christ is suspended over the nave. In the Christchurch design, there is a similar sized image of Mary and the baby Jesus. This choice of image is just one of the reasons that some see the modern Christchurch design as more feminine than classic Gothic architecture.

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The exteriors differ though, with Christchurch encasing the curves in traditional Gothic lines, while the Oakland exterior has been compared to a nest or a basket. Bill Gregory of Warren and Mahoney declined to be interviewed about his approach to modern church architecture, although he has been talking about the design choices in both Christchurch and Auckland.

However, it is fair to say that of the three options released by the church - restoration of the old, entirely new and a compromise option - the entirely new is most likely to proceed. At the Anglican Synod this month, approximately 220 members voted. Ten voted for the compromise, no one voted for the restoration and the remaining 210 or more voted for the new design.

There is a sense that this was not just because of the cost and the timeframe, but because there are things new buildings can do that rebuilt old ones can not. As one insider said to me, you wouldn't rebuild a 19th century hospital or school building for the 21st century. Times change, needs change, uses change.

If you check the Anglican diocese's "design options matrix", you see that the modern option is the only one of the three that ticks every box. Unlike the much-loved Gothic original, the new one would connect with nature, engage community, be inclusive and welcoming, be green and sustainable, have hospitality space, have good sight lines, be safe, have transcendent use of light, along with other attributes that the old one apparently lacked.

With that in mind, what can the Anglican diocese of Christchurch learn from the experience of those who designed and built Christ the Light? Are there lessons or warnings? Does a revised shape or look change the function of the building and the way others approach it? Can a modern church building generate the sense of awe that we expect from old ones?

Christ the Light communications director Mike Brown was unwilling to be drawn into a comparison of Christchurch and Oakland but he forwarded a set of documents that provide background and context.

First, the history. Once it had decided to build a new church, the Catholic diocese of Oakland ran an international design competition, won by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. He was a good name to get, but after two years of "fits and starts involving site changes," as one report put it, Calatrava moved on, and the church went to the runner-up, whose design was less avant garde and less expensive.

In second place was local architect Craig Hartman (Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta came third). Hartman is with the San Francisco firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. There is an unexpected parallel with Christchurch: just as Warren and Mahoney is a Christchurch firm with a notable history that gets to make its mark all over again with the rebuild, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has been named as one of a handful of San Francisco firms that has reshaped the Bay Area. Its cathedral has been called "one of the landmarks that suggest that the Bay Area is no longer a backwater when it comes to striking contemporary design". Will the same be said of Christchurch?

The modern Christchurch option is budgeted at $56 million to $74m, for a cathedral that seats at least 1000. The Oakland building was budgeted at US$131m when commissioned in 2003, but the cost blew out to US$190m - at the same time, the Catholic diocese took out a loan to pay out on sex scandals. The Oakland cathedral seats 1350, and included a conference centre, bishop's centre and diocesan offices. The footprints are comparable.

In Christchurch, the modern option is the cheapest and quickest of the three. Behind the scenes, it has often been said since the earthquake that a church should have better things to spend money on than monuments. Social services, for example. Some say that is one reason why the cheaper option has been preferred by the synod.

The same arguments played out in Oakland. A parishioner wrote to the diocese newspaper: "Should we give to organisations that help people daily or to a facade that to me is embarrassing and a disgrace?" You can imagine the same statements if the Anglicans of Christchurch opted to spend anywhere between $104m and $221m on restoring the old cathedral.

But was the Oakland cathedral really so expensive? Religion professor Richard Kieckhefer told USA Today that the cost is minor compared to that of museums or sports stadiums. Again, there is a Christchurch analogy. While the Oakland cathedral was going up, planning was under way for a US$500m baseball stadium.

"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."

Former Oakland Archbishop Allen Vigneron added "Beauty is one of the principle qualities of God's own being" and "the cathedral is a testament that there's a reason to hope".

Bishop Victoria Matthews has said similar things about the spiritual value of beauty. In an interview with me in 2011, she said, "You want to walk into a church and feel your spirit soar. If we were better humans, we could do that by walking outside and we wouldn't need it. But we need some help and churches help us."

She added that, "beauty embraces us in our suffering".

The architect, Craig Hartman, has also spoken eloquently about the meaning of the Christ of Light cathedral. He has said he wanted to achieve a generosity of spirit with modest means, rather than trying to impress through consumption of resources and display of spectacle, as cathedrals did historically. Hence, the materials: wood, glass and concrete.

The idea was to be permeable, transparent, open - not a religious fortress closed to the public.

Light sources are important; Hartman has talked of "the mystery and poetry of light". The massive image of Christ was created by designer Lonny Israel, who laser-cut a medieval image of Christ in Majesty in Chartres Cathedral onto aluminium panels, within which there are 94,000 perforations that let light in to recreate the original image.

Hartman went into much deeper detail in an interview with the American Institute of Architects in 2011.

He talked of "the desire for inclusiveness", with the circle as the organising geometry. This is where the Oakland design departs from Christchurch's: with a circular structure, the architect put the congregation around the altar "as one community". This evolved out of current Catholic liturgy, he explained. The Second Vatican Council promoted the creation of community through church design. The traditional cross layout, which Christchurch keeps, was dropped for a fish-shaped floorplan, referencing the symbol used by very early Christians.

But in other ways, the Christchurch and Oaklands parallels are obvious.

"The intention is to cut across class, race, and social conditions, to be welcoming to everyone," Hartman said. "We are in a city of many cultures. It's not like Rome or Florence, when the duomos were being built for a single culture. This cathedral was built in a democracy. What does this mean architecturally?"

Similarly, the ChristChurch Cathedral describes itself as "ministering to people of all faiths and none".

Hartman went on: "One of the questions that the diocese asked at the very beginning was, 'How would you make a building that's both sacred and civic?' I am grateful and moved by how it has been received in the community - both Catholic and secular - as a symbol of cultural rebirth."

At its opening in 2008, Bishop Allen Vigneron said that he hoped "people of all beliefs will find a welcome here" - the service concluded with Vigneron joined before the altar by Jewish and Muslim representatives.

That is one way of being modern. And to act modern, it helps to look the part.

In 2007, Vigneron told USA Today that the diocese went for Hartman's 21st century aesthetic to show that "we are not an antique or a relic of yesteryear".

In the same report, Reverend Leo Edgerly Jr, who served on the cathedral advisory board, expected that the modern cathedral would become an Oakland tourist attraction. He has been proved right.

"You can go to Europe and see Gothic cathedrals," he said. "You can come to Oakland and see this."

The Press