Cathedral of Light
Having sat vacant as a parking lot for neighboring high-rise office buildings for over 30 years, the 2.5-acre (one-hectare) parcel on the north shore of Lake Merritt was ripe for change. Earlier, the former Packard automobile showroom by local legend architect Bernard Maybeck had stood on the site until the City razed it in the 1970s.
The decision to push the cathedral's rectory, cafe, gift shop, and sanctuary to the perimeters of the site, and to locate the remainder of the program under the plaza, helped to create a viable public space. The raised open plaza connects the cathedral complex to the view and to its modern neighbors.
Decades ago, corporations capitalized on the lovely lakeside locale by building their office towers along the shore. Another SOM creation, the Ordway Building (1970) — still the tallest skyscraper in town, for the time being — is a backdrop for the cathedral complex, as is Welton Becket's glass-and-aluminum Kaiser Building (1960).
On a warm, sunny weekday morning, office workers, worshippers, and tourists crisscross the cathedral's public outdoor spaces. People take photos, conduct business by cell phone, or meditate on one of the many benches. When the redwoods that line the broad ramp up from the street grow taller, they will provide much-needed shade on hot days.
Greg Bedard, development associate for Christ the Light, says that the outdoor plaza has yet to be programmed, but there will likely be civic and interfaith events. Hundreds of people attended the building dedication in September 2008; the plaza can hold 2,000.
The complex contains other places to congregate as well. At street level beneath the concrete rectory, a conference center for 500 people connects to a full-service catering kitchen. The conference room is available for public rental. And the parish office has its own hall where worshippers can take refreshments and mingle after mass within site of Lake Merritt.
Public amenities include a cafe and bookstore that open onto a garden of fruitless olive trees designed by landscape architect Peter Walker and Partners of Berkeley. From the garden, it is a few steps to Ordway's L-shaped courtyard. At the Grand Avenue edge, the plazas meet at the same level, making it hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
"It is seamless," applauds Bedard, who appreciates how the cathedral complex connects with the urban fabric. The plaza's central location — with proximity to nearby office towers, the lake, and, of course, the cathedral — draws people in.
Hartman says the parklike space, accessible all the time, is designed to be informal, open, and inviting. Parts of the plaza provide vistas of nearby parkland, the irregular contours of the lake, and the older architecture along its frontage.
This space looks promising as a gathering place where people meet, a space people use. The popularity of this public perch may be the ultimate measure of the cathedral's success.
Lauri Puchall lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works for Turk Kauffman Architecture and writes about architecture and the environment.
Design architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM), San Francisco, California
Architect of record: Kendall/ Heaton Associates, Houston, Texas
Structural engineer of record: SOM
MEP engineer: Taylor Engineering, Alameda, California
Landscape architect: Peter Walker and Partners, Berkeley, California
Lighting consultant: Claude R. Engle, Chevy Chase, Maryland
Project management: Conversion Management Associates, San Francisco, California
General contractor: Webcor Builders, San Mateo, California
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