Archive for the ‘SOM’ Category

A 21st century cathedral infused with light and history

May 31, 2010

Glass panels act as a veil for the Cathedral of Christ the Light

The monumental Cathedral of Christ the Light has graced the shore of Lake Merritt in Oakland since September, 2008 but I only recently had a chance to visit. After hearing the name of the architect – Craig Hartman – two or three times in casual conversation in the last few months, it seemed like a good time to look at the work of a living architect for a change. 

Hartman, design partner at the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, has used glass, steel and other materials typically associated with the skyscrapers his firm is known for, to create a luminous and grand cathedral. The aptly named Cathedral of Christ the Light sits like a shimmering cone and is the focal point of a large plaza with other diocese buildings and a green space. It is another architectural must-see in the East Bay, along with Bernard Maybeck’s First Church of Christ, Scientist, Julia Morgan’s Berkeley City Club and Timothy Pflueger’s stunning Paramount Theatre a few blocks away.

Sun drenched plaza and fountain near the cathedral

The commission of a cathedral is an especially rare one for most architects. The last cathedral built in the Bay Area was St. Mary’s, formally known as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption on Gough Street, completed in 1971. Its washing machine-like agitator steeple is a distinct presence in the San Francisco skyline but the interior has always seemed dark and uninviting to me. 

The Cathedral of Christ the Light was commissioned by the Diocese of Oakland after its neo-Gothic Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales was irreparably damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The diocese held an architectural competition, and initially awarded the job to Spanish starchitect, Santiago Calatrava. But in 2003, Calatrava withdrew from the project, and the runner-up, the design by Hartman, was selected. 

The influence of the light at Ronchamp

Hartman, who spoke with me for an article in the Wall Street Journal, said one inspiration was the way Le Corbusier used light in his famous chapel, Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France.  After studying abroad in London while attending Ball State University’s then-nascent College of Architecture, Hartman made his own pilgrimage to see the iconic chapel.  He hitchhiked to the village of Ronchamp to see Le Corbusier’s modest chapel of reinforced concrete, with its sloped roof and thick concrete walls, punctured with squares and rectangles to let in the natural light.  

“I was stunned to see the way light was introduced to the space, and with very modest materials,” Hartman recalled.  

Light and space play a big theme in all of Hartman’s work, from his office towers in San Francisco, the International Terminal at SFO, an urban plan for Treasure Island, and his much-lauded U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Light is a major component of his cathedral, as if it were another building material. The result melds the historical, traditional and contemporary, as architect and client sought to build a 21st century cathedral, with some vestiges of tradition.  

Chartres and the Gothic love of geometry

The cathedral also evokes some images of the medieval Chartres Cathedral, an hour south of Paris, renowned for its long, tortured history, its mismatched spires and ornate stained glass windows, which were removed and spared from the bombings during World War II. Chartres crowns the top of a long winding hill above the small city of Chartres.  Oakland’s cathedral is at the crest of a slight elevation, where a long, straight ramp, called the Pilgrim’s Path, leads from the sidewalk on Harrison Street to the formal entrance at the south end.

Omega Window and digitized version of a sculpture at Chartres

Stepping inside the grand doors, a huge, round baptismal font of dark granite also acts as a vessel for holy water, echoing the lake across the street. The cathedral is aligned with Lake Merritt and the moving sun, the interior capturing every angle of light.  

“It’s almost like a kaleidoscope,” said Rev. Paul Minnihan, the Cathedral’s provost, as he gave me a tour.   

The presence of light can be stunning, depending on the time of day. The interior of the sanctuary is framed by 26 ribs of curved Douglas fir, 110 feet high, and 768 fixed slanted louvers, which flood the interior with light. The northern wall, called the Omega Window, has a digitized version of a sculptural relief of Christ in the Chartres cathedral. The image comes through a series of aluminum panels that have 94,000 punctured holes of varying sizes letting in different degrees of light.  

The image of Christ looms 58-feet high like an apparition and appears darker or lighter, depending on the time of day. It can even been seen in the evening, as the cathedral, lit from inside, glows. The hologram-like image of Christ is both a 21st century interpretation of a medieval work of art and another homage to the Gothic cathedral.  

However the floor plan of the sanctuary, which seats 1,350, is not the standard cruciform pattern. Hartman wanted a modern approach versus the traditional hierarchical form used by Gothic church builders, where the congregation faces the altar.  “The idea here is to have the altar in the center and have the congregation around that,” he said.

Cathedral of Christ the Light, annotated plan, courtesy SOM

Coming full circle

After Hartman was chosen for the cathedral, he consulted with Walter Netsch, one of his mentors from his early years working at SOM’s Chicago headquarters. Netsch had a big influence on Hartman’s career. As a young student in the late 1960s during a visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy, it was seeing one of Netsch’s most famous works, the radical Cadet Chapel  and its soaring row of triangular spires in Colorado Springs, Colo., that inspired Hartman to consider studying architecture.  “The amazing circle of life, I suppose,” he said.

The geometry of circles, spheres and squares plays a role in his design. The sanctuary design refers to the intersection of two overlapping spheres, known as vesica piscis, an ancient symbol for Catholics and other faiths, representing Christ, the congregation, procreation and the basic symbol of Christianity, the fish.

“I felt that the building, in addition to light, should have a very strong geometrical base,” Hartman said, noting that geometry was the basis of all the great Gothic cathedrals. Netsch also advised Hartman to read “The Church Incarnate” written by a German architect known for his churches, Rudolf Schwartz.  Bill Marquand, an architect in Lafayette, called Schwartz a “major theoretician” and said his writings were “very deep.” 

The new cathedral is also home to many artifacts of the now-destroyed St. Francis de Sales, reminders of the heritage of the Oakland Diocese. One is the cornerstone of the original cathedral, inserted into the new cathedral.  Another is a mosaic from St. Francis de Sales, now the centerpiece in the Hall of Honor where the new cathedral’s benefactors are recognized. In the mausoleum below the cathedral, the altar from St. Francis has been repurposed into a catafalque, where a casket or urn is placed during final prayers before entombment. A soothing waterfall trickles as visitors enter. Several stained glass windows, including one depicting St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of the diocese, were also saved and now adorn the crypt areas.

Healing garden for victims of sexual abuse by priests

Some visitors might miss another garden area behind the cathedral, which was designed by and dedicated to victims of sexual abuse by priests. While the garden is small, the New York Times noted in 2008 that it is “the largest and most prominent recognition of the scandal ever built at an American cathedral.”

The centerpiece of the simple garden is a sculpture by artist Masatoshi Izumi in basalt stone, broken in three pieces. The benches and surrounding hedges mirror the vesica piscis shape of the cathedral. A plaque at the site says, “We remember, and we affirm: Never again.”

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate Hartman’s Cathedral of Christ the Light. While there are many references to the theological, the mystical and the ethereal, it is also a celebration of the here and now, of life. 
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Deco the halls: SF skyscrapers jazz it up

December 24, 2009

Every December, when people are looking for ways to evoke that holiday spirit, many families pile up in cars and drive to their favorite Bay Area neighborhood, famous for over-the-top displays. 

Or they traipse to Union Square together, to check out the huge windows at Macy’s, Saks 5th Avenue, and Neiman Marcus, where some, like Carl Nolte of the San Francisco Chronicle, fondly remember the store when it was the City of Paris. 

So here is a novel idea if you are searching for some holiday glam, away from the crowds. Come to the Financial District, where many skyscrapers are decked out in their red and gold finest, and glimpse the city’s smorgasbord of architectural styles. 

Of course, here at the Timothy Pflueger blog, I am partial to the skyscrapers of the Jazz Age. But there is holiday spirit everywhere you turn.  Try and catch some of these decorations before they are put away in storage at the dawn of the new decade. 

Giant ornaments at plaza at 101 California

101 California Street 

A fun place to start, where many come to take photos, is the plaza in front of the tower simply known as 101 California

The plaza is currently dominated by giant red steel Christmas tree ornaments. You will feel like a Lilliputian next to these giants, which are nicely accented by an array of potted red Cyclamen. There are two big block of concrete steps in the plaza (like a ziggurat!) to relax or watch seagulls bathe in the nearby fountain. 

Giant ornaments hang from the ceiling of 101 California

Inside, the lobby of the cylindrical 48-story tower, completed in 1982 and designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, has more grandiose decor. Enormous ornaments hang from the ceiling. 

One Bush Plaza 

Continue down California, then turn left onto Battery Street, until you reach the corner of Battery and Bush, and cross the street to SOM’s Crown Zellerbach Building, the city’s first International style building. Completed in 1959, it is one of the finest examples of mid-century modern design in the city, inspired by Mies van der Rohe. 

SOM's Crown Zellerbach and its glass-enclosed Miesian lobby

One Sansome Street 

Walk down Bush Street one block. Turn left onto Sansome and cross the street. If you are walking during regular business hours, you can enter the courtyard that serves as the conservatory adjacent to the bland skyscraper at One Sansome Street. The conservatory is the former site of a bank designed by my favorite Beaux-Arts architect, Albert Pissis. 

Conservatory at One Sansome with Poinsettia tree

The lovely marble-enclosed conservatory was originally the Anglo and London Paris National Bank, which occupied the site from 1910-1981. 

Pissis, a San Francisco architect who was born in Mexico to a French father and a Mexican mother, grew up mostly in San Francisco, with an interlude at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1870s.
 
Pissis is known for his early embrace of the Neoclassic, as one can see from the preserved marble arches and ornate cornice. Some of his best-known buildings are the Hibernia Bank on Jones Street, the Flood Building on Market and Powell, and the former Emporium, now San Francisco Centre, just across Market Street from the Flood Building.

155 Sansome Street 

Turn around and continue on Sansome Street and head to the former Pacific Stock Exchange building at the corner of Sansome and Pine (an amusing footnote, in the financial pages of the Chronicle for years, a byline on the daily markets wrap-up story was Sansome Pine). 

155 Sansome Lobby (do not use without permission of Empire Group)

There is usually a friendly guard sitting at the information desk (except on Sundays) in the lobby of 155 Sansome Street, who won’t mind if you peak at the tree and the gorgeous lobby.

If you cannot get inside, you can also gaze at the streamlined design of Miller & Pflueger’s tower, completed in 1929 just after the great stock market crash. The massive sculptures that adorn both the facade of 155 Sansome and the Stock Exchange trading building on Pine were done by local artist Ralph Stackpole and you can see the influence of his friend, muralist Diego Rivera, who painted a stunning mural inside at the City Club, the former luncheon club for traders and brokers.

Inside, gold tones in the lobby compliment the brightly lit tree and shimmer in the reflection of the dark marble walls. The star-patterned ceiling was inspired by a Berlin nightclub. 

465 California Street 

Continue down Sansome until you hit California Street again, turn left, and look for the brightly colored columns of the Merchants Exchange Building, designed in 1904 by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, with Willis Polk, one of the city’s more eccentric architects, best known for his daring design of the Hallidie Building at 130 Sutter and its innovative glass curtain wall. 

Merchants Exchange Building and its tarted up Ionic columns

Russ Building 

Continue along California Street and turn left onto Montgomery, you will see the heavy massing of the Russ Building at 235 Montgomery Street, which was for many years the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, after its completion in 1927. 

Russ Building's Neogothic details with red holiday cheer

It stole the crown in height from Miller & Pflueger and Cantin’s Telephone Building. Its Neogothic detailing makes one think of a cathedral and the lobby is especially church-like, a veritable temple to finance. It was commissioned by two investment banking firms during the roaring 1920s stock market boom. 

After admiring how the terracotta facing and detailing is highlighted by the red holiday swags and greenery, continue down Montgomery Street, also known as Wall Street West (even though the Stock Exchange was located on Pine Street). 

Continue until you hit Sutter Street, and at Sutter and Montgomery, you will find the office building where Dashiell Hammett’s best known detective, Sam Spade, had his office. 

Sam Spade went through these doors

111 Sutter  

It has been calculated by Hammett fans, including Don Herron, the creator of the Dashiell Hammett walking tour, that Sam Spade, the detective in The Maltese Falcon, had his office in the Hunter-Dulin, completed in 1926 by New York architects Schultze & Weaver, known for their beloved Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

While not Deco or Moderne in style, the Hunter-Dulin Building is reminiscent of a French chateau. Its unusual copper mansard roof can be seen as you hike up Sutter Street. Notice the ornament course at eye level and you will see a bird. A falcon perhaps? Well not likely, since the building was complete before the black bird’s infamous moments in literature.  But it’s fun to pretend. 

450 Sutter

Turn left at the Hunter-Dulin Building, and head up Sutter Street, just as Spade turned toward Kearny on the prowl for some tobacco. There is a slight incline and as you walk west, you can see the tower of 450 Sutter, its terracotta ornament recently cleaned and new windows installed.

The interior is like stepping into a temple of the Maya, with its stepped ceiling in the shape of a ziggurat. The gold and green holiday decorations contrast with the dark Levanto marble and echo the gold, bronze and silver tones of the extensive metal work, which evoke Mayan figures, in the stunning lobby.

450 Sutter's Maya lobby decorated with holiday greenery

Happy holidays to everyone. 


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