A Tale of Two Cathedrals: Why “Traditional versus Modernist” Tells Only Part of the Story

Here we have two recent Cathedrals of similarly grand scale and with contrasting architectures. The juxtaposition of the two styles makes an interesting case study for the “traditional versus modernist” debate over which architectural style is most appropriate for worship. Debates of this kind usually begin over obvious characteristics of style. But following a close examination of these two buildings, the less obvious elements turn out to reverse first impressions. The issue then becomes very complicated, and, in my opinion, far more revealing than a superficial debate based upon style. This discussion brings up issues on today’s approach to church planning. First a disclaimer: I have visited neither building in person, yet that is the only sure way of experiencing a structure. For this reason, my review is bound to be incomplete and partial.

The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston, by Ziegler-Cooper Architects, is in obviously traditional style. This is an accepted tendency in many post-war churches, with a high, open, vertical entrance. It is an excellent idea to use, or rather, re-use traditional typologies for the ancient act of worship. Those who support tradition over innovation in Church architecture (and in the Church itself) see no need for any further justification. The human being is tied to God through ritual over millennia, and the best architectural solutions are those developed over time. An intelligent and sensitive architect can use them in a contemporary context with great success, and that is what has been achieved here. Tried-and-true methods are used to design a building that is solid on tradition, reassuring in presenting the Church of tradition to the faithful.

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.

There the matter would stand in a limited but superficial comparison: a traditional building versus an innovative building. Both would appear to work well, and if they were not separated by such a great distance, they could offer a choice to churchgoers who had the corresponding philosophy of their own, namely traditional versus contemporary. But things are not so simple. Let us look at the details and interior spaces.

The Houston Cathedral has an unexpectedly non-traditional aspect when examined more closely. It feels like a building from the Vienna Secession: rich materials, yes, but also planes that are not filled in, and abstraction in its volumes. This is not a traditional building by far. It is not a Cathedral that any of my friends who design traditional churches would have built. They would have stuck to more of a traditional style in all the details (with magnificent results by the way). Here, instead the architects have achieved a harmonious result by pushing traditional typologies and ornamentation as far toward modernism as is possible to go without losing everything. We are reminded of the Vienna Secession and Art Deco, that glorious flowering of innovative architecture just before architects eliminated every vestige of tradition (and most of the architectural rules that touch us in a healing manner). I am forced to revise my initial hasty opinion and declare this building highly innovative. The innovation is employed to give a very positive impression: this is the reason the building looks comfortable; it looks traditional even when it is actually not. I am impressed by the result and warn other observers not to be taken in by a superficial judgment.

This building is “modern” in every positive meaning of the word. I caution, however, that it comes close to being “cold” in those places where its approach to abstraction is the strongest. What could have been done to improve the Houston Cathedral? The answer is obvious, although not implemented. My friends would have put in those smaller details that come from traditional ornamentation at the smallest scales, even if very restrained. Or its architects could have devised their own form language on those small ornamental scales. The eye needs ordered structure just a little larger than the rich granularity in the natural materials, and that is missing here in some places. By imposing restrictions in its form language on the smaller scales, the hierarchy is lost going down to details.

Harmonious ornamentation achieved through multiple symmetries nourishes our senses and creates in us a healing state. As human beings, we always anthropomorphize our gods, and expect that they share our own higher pleasures. For this reason, our love of God moves us to ornament the place where we worship, and to do so in a totally selfless manner. We wish to create an environment of maximal transcendent pleasure using an understanding that arises from our own physical experience.

Oakland Cathedral: Technological Innovation for No Obvious Spiritual Purpose?
Turning to the Oakland Cathedral, it 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.

I have had to make a total reversal of my initial impressions. The Houston Cathedral is the innovative structure, and in the end completely successful in its role. In the Oakland Cathedral I find imagery and architectural fashion used in a gratuitous manner, despite the apparently good intentions. I have not worshipped in either of them and thus I cannot know if members of the congregation in Oakland feel that the architecture detracts from their experience of the Mass. Only they can tell for sure. Perhaps they do not notice because of the excitement created by the openness and light. But how about on a rainy day? Or in the time of crisis? Then, a modest but architecturally harmonious church helps an individual or entire community find stability and solace. Excitement is fine for good times, but does it help you in the long term? Does not the same concept hold for the Church itself?

Most important, I see a fundamental humility in the Houston Cathedral, quite a feat expressed in such a large and imposing building, and in my mind, this modesty is closer to the early Church doctrine. In the Oakland Cathedral, however, I see mostly architectural “statements” all competing for attention with each other. I agree that this phenomenon is symptomatic of our times, and that a church “of our time” might well express this same clamor in its structure. Nevertheless, I don’t see this as healthy or as appropriate for housing the timeless truths offered by religion.

The problem, I believe, goes beyond church architecture, into the basis of architectural form language. An adaptive form language evolves along with a traditional society. It can be used and reused, modified, and developed specifically for new situations. It can evolve into more innovative form languages, such as Beaux-Arts into Art Deco, without losing its essential expressivity. Traditional form languages have this characteristic: they are adaptive to more contemporary uses as, for example, in the Houston Cathedral. The modernist rejection of all traditional form languages, on the other hand, established at the same time a negation of form languages. This resulted in a limited palette of design elements that can be neither adapted nor joined together with others: a narrow substitute for language without combinatoric properties that is made not to engage. For this reason, trying to utilize modernist and deconstructivist images to achieve a connection to both the building and to the universe ultimately leads to unsatisfactory results.

Building a church using an architectural form language that fails to connect reflects a particular design philosophy. The wooden slats of the Oakland Cathedral are used in airports and shopping centers to produce a pleasant but neutral environment. This is not an act of love towards the Creator comparable to the one that overwhelms us as we approach and enter a Mediaeval Cathedral. I would say that instead of intense physical pleasure, one does achieve the very different reward of intellectual pleasure from such a church having recognizable symbols of built form. But that comes at the price of making everything else less intense.

This review was first published in a bilingual English/Italian edition of Chiesa Oggi, No. 87 (2009) under the title “Oakland versus Houston: two cathedrals, two styles.” It was later Republished by the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, Milan, 2012. This essay is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Nikos Salingaros


Nikos Salingaros is an architectural theorist, a long-time associate of Christopher Alexander, and a mathematical physicist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In addition to publishing hundreds of articles on architectural theory in academic journals, he has authored many books on the subject, including A Theory of Architecture (2006), Principles of Urban Structure (2005), Twelve Lectures on Architecture (2010), and Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction (2008), all of which have been translated into many languages.

  • Paul Tran

    This is a rather disturbing read.
    Firstly : one needs to define at which point do places of worship, albeit in the “traditions” of Christianity, become “traditional” ? The rectilinear aspect of church building cannot itself be attributed to the wellbeing of the worshipers nor accentuates the worshipping of God. Rectilinear shapes , far from being “traditional”, were preceded by circular or round structures used as places of worship – i.e. stone henges and later round churches such as ones in the UK.
    Secondly: concrete , as a material per se,  was invented by the Romans and is nothing new. Moreover, the materials used in the Cathedral of The Scared Heart (Houston) may be natural, tactile and easier on the eye (to some) but are they just stucco or cladding on top of concrete ? At this point one has to address the integrity and honesty of the structure. Hence, is Architecture purely about the superficial ?
    Thirdly : what makes The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (Houston) a church/cathedral ? Is it the 2 -storey high window above the entrance with the image of Christ – which replaces the “traditional” rose window of a cathedral – that informs us that it is a place of worship or the crucifixes mounted on top of the front facade or on top of the dome ? Surely these imageries cannot be considered as architectural ?
    Personally, I do not believe there’s right or wrong with either structures as each has its own design faults. In the end, it’s down to those who physically participate  in these structures who have the last say as to whether each structure facilitates the worshipping of God as their sole design function ?

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  • Usarownow

    The condition of difference is defined by Culture, cohesive culture.  I’m sure you know the Age of Great Faith achieved is flowering in that Gothic age most feel represents Catholic or even spiritual emotion most.  I’m also sure you know early church architecture did not anticipate Gothic work.  Additionally, the age of great faith is so very unhappily no longer with us….simply put, what American call the Enlightenment did it in.  Interestingly enough Europeans don’t consider the name enlightenment very valid  yet, as both europreans and ‘new worlders’ know nothing is present to replace that Age of Great Faith. 

    • Fr. Selvester

      I do think it is worth pointing out that a lot of concrete was used in the Oakland cathedral because it is located in a place that is earthquake prone. It was built to replace a cathedral that was irreparably damaged by an earthquake. Concrete is a superior material to stone when attempting to make a building earthquake-resistant. Even the Episcopalian Grace cathedral across the bay in San Francisco appears at first glance to be a very “traditional” neo french gothic jewel until you examine it more closely to see it is built not of stone but of poured concrete and the interior ceiling has wooden ribs for vaults that were never filled in. All this was because of the seismic activity in the Bay Area. Sometimes materials are chosen not by ideology but by necessity.

  • Church is not the buildings. God left temples a long time ago.  It’s the people who worship at the temples and gather for the Eucharist what makes God’s presence a reality in any building or house.

    • The Ubiquitous

      Yet Cathedrals — and churches — should be “catechesis in stone.” 

      • How utterly Vat. 2 this sounds.

        • The Ubiquitous

          Well, it was used very well in Ugly as Sin, an excellent denunciation of modern architecture as being against Catholic piety. 

    • Taylor Barranco

      This is not true at all. Christ is physically present in the Eucharist…like, really and literally. This type of thinking is completely false and dangerous.

      • Paul Tran

        Yes, but do all churches embody the spirit of the Eucharist ?

        • Proteios1

          That was the point of this article. To open up this question for thought and discussion.

    • J G

       There is nothing wrong with beauty. Except in our modern culture where ugliness seems to be in style. Surely we can still build beautiful cathedrals. All we need is the will to do it.

      • Paul Tran

        Ugliness exists in ancient times too. The problem is every person has a different sense of beauty & ugliness.

        • wolfeken

          Hold up photos of the cathedrals in New York City and Los Angeles.  Then poll the first 20 people on the street on beauty.

          Or, ask a child or a bride which is an ugly church and which is a beautiful church and you will get a quick, easy and uniform answer.

          • Paul Tran

            LOL, the first 20 folks would probably make a very poor sample and indication of taste.
            I would wager (although I am not allowed to gamble) that there wouldn’t be an uniform answer.

        • There is an easy way to determine if a church is beautiful.  It is the church at which brides wish to be married.

        • Mark Rutledge

          That’s relativist thinking, Paul. There is such a thing as objective beauty, recognition of which, or at least fealty to, waxes and wanes. As JG said, we live in times where “ugly is in,” from architecture to performance art to fashion to literature. This does not speak well for contemporary culture and screams for the need to reevangelize the west.

        • J G

           That is untrue. People travel thousands of miles to visit San Marco in Venice. They don’t do that for the cathedral of Oakland. Beauty is universal. As a priest I know that brides always opt for a beautiful church. The one I am at now is a concrete bunker. We don’t do many marriages. They all go to the 2 beautiful churches in town. It drives those pastors nuts as they have to do the extra work.

    • Paul Tran

      Although I agree with what you are saying, but that still leaves us with the question how to provide or craft a space that is suitable for the worship of God ?

    • Christopher Alexander has shown that God reveals himself in matter, or in the field of centers. The old cathedrals were just that!

      “After a lecture of mine, I once heard an architecture student say, “I still don’t see why all this has been discussed. Isn’t it enough to understand the nature of living structure thoroughly, and try and make life in our buildings? Why do you insist so strongly on the fact that we also need to change our picture of the universe? I have a picture of the universe which is quite flexible enough to contain the idea of living structure”.I did not find myself in agreement with this comment. In my mind, what is most important about the picture painted in these four books is that indeed, our present picture of the universe can not contain the idea of living structure, because it contains no natural way of including the idea of value in the idea of space. What I have constructed, on the other hand, has the idea of value in an a natural way – first in the relevant intensity of different elementary centers as part of the definition of wholeness, and then with more and more depth, as centers are built from living centers, to give structure of real, deep, significant value by essential the same idea. In this picture, value resides in the structure and is part of the structure. Value is written in the same language as the rest of the structure of space-time, and the life of the centers arises from the fabric and structure of space itself.In this conception, value is not something merely grafted onto space, as a passenger might be who carries no weight and does no work. It is part of the same nearly mechanical picture of space that we have come to believe in, and respect, and trust. Yet, at the same time, in a most subtle way, it is also not-mechanical. After all, what we observe is life emerging from space, as we might say “out of the very foam of space”.It is a structure, we can (tentatively) calculate with it, and it fits our structural understanding of space and matter. Yet it creates a bridge to life, feeling, and to our own experience of what it is to be a person: the self, which all of us contain, and are connected to.That is the structural meaning of what I have described.George Wald, in the paper quoted earlier, where he says that all matter is ultimately mindstuff, balks at making any particular connection between space and matter. He writes, in one place, “Consciousness is altogether impervious to scientific approach”(42). And later, “Though consciousness is the essential condition for all science, science cannot deal with it”(43). Thus, in spite of Wald’s fervent belief in the existence of consciousnesses (or mind, or self), he insists that it is impenetrable, not connected to structure of space and time as we observe them as a structure.Yet what I claim is precisely that it is connected to structure. I claim that the field of centers, or some version of it, is a recursive structure in space, which does precisely serve the function of being the bridge between matter and consciousnesses, between matter and mind; and that it is, indeed, when these extraordinary living structures arise in space, that mind awakens, that space and matter open a window to the mind, and that the great self behind all things actually comes within our experience and our reach.I believe that one day it will be possible to demonstrate an experimental connection, where it will be shown exactly how the field of centers does open a door between space and self, and how, ultimately then, self and matter are permanently intertwined through the construction of the mechanism.A traditional scientific view, held by many during the 20th century, has been that mechanical pictures of matter, can be consistent with any spiritual view of God or consciousness because the two (matter and consciousnesses) inhabit non-communicating intellectual domains. Such a dichotomy may have been a source of comfort to positivists. But, scientifically speaking, it allows us to get no mileage from the co-presence of the two.Indeed, I believe continued insistence on the compatibility of the two (“because they do interact”) is almost tantamount to denying any real and useful interaction, and thus inhibits intellectual progress. Polkinghorn, for example, said at one time that everything is OK as it is, and that it is easy enough to reconcile a materialist conception of matter with a spiritual conception of life(44). All this really said was that we have no understanding of the connection, and that – from an intellectual point of view – there is no interaction. But in view of the mechanist predisposition which is common in our time, and the fact that all practical understanding is mechanical in nature, this means, too, that we have no picture in which self and matter can be coupled: therefore no real way of believing that they arecoupled.Even though Polkinghorne and the student who was speaking to me may believe the present world-picture is adequate to contain both, I believe it is not so. This broad-minded, intellectually catholic opinion is mistaken. The two views, in their present form, cannot coexist successfully. Even today, we continue understanding the degree to which we are prisoners of the present mechanistic cosmology; we have a strong tendency to underestimate the effect that this interior mechanistic view can have on us.Consider for example, three elementary facts: (1) in our immediate world, at normal temperature and pressure, nearly everything is made of atoms; (2) atoms are little whirling mechanisms which are spinning constantly; (3) people are largely made of atoms too.Nearly every schoolchild learns these facts in school. We all learnt them. They are, by now, virtually a part of us. Probably we learned them when we were eight or nine years old. As a result, in the western world at least, there are few people alive who do not believe (“know”) that they are mechanisms made up of millions of tiny whirling mechanisms.In case this seems like an exaggeration, or that people do not really believe these things literally as as being the whole picture, consider the first paragraph of a recently published book, THE ASTONISHING HYPOTHESIS, by the eminent molecular biologist Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA: “The astonishing hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules…”(45)At first one might find it surprising that such an eminent scientist should put forward such a crass-seeming reductionist view without flinching. But it simply underlines my point that all of us are susceptible to this oversimplification, so long as we have nothing to replace it with. It is a mark of Crick’s honesty and intellectual rigor that he faces the real meaning of the present cosmological scheme and does not try to duck it with pious phrases. Without having access to another structure, so that the structure of matter itself leads to a different view, it seems to me that anyone honest much reach the same conclusions Crick has reached.But if you believe Crick’s mechanized reduction is accurate, how can you take seriously the kinds of ideas which I have described about the life of buildings, and walls, and rooms, and streets? The answer is, you cannot. You cannot, because if you believe the three elementary-school facts, then mentally, you are still living in a universe in which nothing matters, and in which you do not matter. And then the life of the environment is not real either.Ideas about the personal or spiritual nature or reality, no matter how desirable they seem, cannot affect you deeply, even if you think they do, until they can be embodied in some new picture which leaves the facts of physics intact, and alsopaves the way to a more spiritual understanding of the world by an extended structure which brings in these larger matters clearly and explicitly.The whole point of the consept which I have described – of wholeness seen as calculable, recursive, bootstrap field of centers with the consequence that follow from this view – is that within the framework this concept creates, things really are different, and the differences are visible as new aspects of the structure of space and matter. This newly seen structure not only says that things are different. It shows, through the properties of the structure, exactly how things are different.Within the new view of structure of matter-space provided by the field of centers, we can reconcile the fact of being a mechanism of whirling mechanisms, because we know that each atom is itself a field of centers, and that in the emergence of these fields, the self comes into view. We…you…I…are thus instances of the field of centers or – if we like to see it more deeply – instances of the self-stuff of the universe, making its way, cumbersomely, from the trap of matter to the light of day.Armed with this view, we can unite our personal intuition of religious awe with our sensible scientific understanding of the world. It becomes all one, it all makes sense together. Life and religion fall into place and fit together with physics as necessary consequences of the structure of the world – that is, of the way that matter-space is made.And in this view, the work of building takes on entirely new meaning. It changes in a fundamental way, because we understand what we are doing differently, and realize that our work as builders – through the forms described in this book – place us in an entirely new relation to the universe.In this universe, the human self, yours and mine, are indistinguishable, in their substance, from the space and matter where the play of forms occurs. When we make something, its selfness, its possible soul, is part and parcel of our own self.There is, then, something very like a religious obligation to allow this self to reveal itself. It is our task, as architects, as artists, as builders, to make this stuff, this matter of the universe, reveal itself most fully. This metaphysical obligation will stem directly from our renewed understanding of the substance of the universe. It does not arise merely from our desire to be comfortable, from our desire to avoid alienation. It arises as a supreme spiritual obligation, which is our obligation to the matter/spirit we ourselves are made of.This feeling, though modern in its form, is, in its essence, similar to the medieval mason’s desire to make each stone as a gift to God.But it arises, now, not as a religious or superstitious belief, but as a result of a new understanding of the structure of the universe.” – Christopher Alexander, The Luminous Ground, page 332-334 

  • Nikos,

    Spot on about the Cathedral in Houston, my archdiocese.  It’s pretty cold inside, both aesthetically and spiritually.   Although, I am quite relieved that it isn’t anything like the warehouse cathedral in L.A.

    Sad that we are thankful for something banal relative to what comes across as “innovative” in L.A. and other dioceses.  Thankful in that it could have been an eyesore as in L.A., but isn’t.


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  • Tout

    Looking at a building, it should tell me, it is a church. That’s why many used to be build in the form of a crucifix; at least the central part (nave) and side-arms a bit higher than the rest of the building. There should be a tower, even if not very high, with some bells in it; a crucifix on top. below the crucifix, a ‘cock’ (rooster) to indicate to wind-direction; remember the cock cried after Peter denied 3 times to know Christ. Inside, what one could count as 12 columns; representing the 12 apostles. Our belief is thus expressed already in what shows. The  altar a little (not much) higher than the rest. And of course, a communion-rail, to kneel to receive H.Communion. Confessional at or near back of the church. Statues/paintings of saints. I would say: forget about ‘building’, it must rather be a ‘church’. Our belief does not change but is firm. Our churches should not change much, but stay firm. A ‘church’ should be recognized immediately as a church. One same faith, just different prayers.

    • rightactions

      Statues/paintings of saints.

      And more niches interrupting slab walls to accomodate them!

  • Mammyoriordan

    There are ecclesiastical rules to the building of Churches. Just a few that come to mind –  There should be a nave – that comes from the nautical term which shows the Church as a boat. It should be cruciform in shape. It should have the Tabernacle central as the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Faith.  It should have great beauty so as to bring us out of the mundane and remind us of the Heavenly. It should not be influenced by passing fads and trends in architecture or art – it is for the Church to inform the world and not the other way around.  When we enter the Church we should be conscious that we have left the world and entered into a holy place.  I so agree with The Ubiquitous – “Cathedrals — and churches — should be “catechesis in stone.” – Blessings – Rene

  • Both are ugly as hell.  I live in Houston.

  • fan of schall

    The Oakland Cathedral represents an Ark of radiating beauty inviting the new generation of immigrants in the area to a Church attempting to be less intimidating, less structured, and more neutral than the great European cathedrals that the Houston Cathedral is attempting to emulate in its modern form.  Great article.

  • Mary Gilbert

    Both churches are ugly.  The Houston one looks like a kid made it with Leggos while trying to copy a pretty church.  The Oakland one looks like a mirrored laundry basket and the inside looks like a picnic shelter with those cheap looking wooden slats. And what are those shelves with chopped up sticks? Are those the remnants of the trees they chopped down to make the slats?  There is hope for the Houston one.  Adding some nice traditional colorful  murals and painting the ceiling like the sky would start to make it pretty and not as much like a hospital with pews.

  • Michael

    My understanding is that the Oakland cathedral’s rather unconventional shape has in reality a highly developed reasoning behind it: the body of the cathedral reflects the shape of the ancient Christian “IXOYC” (Ichthus) fish both horizontally as well as vertically. The horizontal wooden slats not only have the practical function of shading the rest of the interior space from the large image of the Chartres-like figure of Christ, which is thereby emphatically illuminated from the back with natural light, but also represents the ark of Noah – the Church is indeed a safe refuge like Noah’s ark.
    I have been to the Oakland cathedral twice; the building’s interior’s impression is definitely sacral and transcendent. I would have some suggestions for improvement for both the interior and especially the exterior, but in general the cathedral is very recognizably and unmistakenly a place of Catholic worship incorporating traditional theological symbolism with a technologically high level of modern innovation which would have been impossible to accomplish in previous generations. 

  • Hossteacher

    I think architects have gone mad.

  • UsarownowAIA

    Considering all the comments made it is clear that beauty and spirituality are not at all inclusive.

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  • SouthCoast

    While agreeing that the Oakland structure is ghastly, the first thing I noticed about the horizontal wooden elements was that they give the idea of planking, in line with one traditional view of a church structure representing an inverted ship or boat. If that were the builders’ intention, nice try, but their ship is, unfortunately, stuck in a depressing drydock.

  • aearon43

    Interesting article. I would like to see more from this author. I’m fortunate to live in Chicago where we have many lovely old churches. There is certainly a place for innovation; I suppose the problem with innovation in architecture (as opposed to music or painting) is that buildings are very expensive and tend to last a long time. So one has to be much more careful, and more suspicious of fashionable trends.

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  • I wasn’t a fan of Christ the Light Cathedral when it was first built. But acoustically it has some surprises; Sadly, for the spoken word there are problems with the sound system. But with regard music it has proven to be a gem, and the organ -amazing! A joy. Brilliant.
    I don’t like the back wall of open-wooden slat work in the sanctuary (dividing the sanctuary from the Blessed Sacrament chapel). Its like looking at a television test pattern, and just doesn’t work.
    We live in earthquake country, so you’re going to see reinforced concrete. In the tradition of cathedral building I hope to see more done over the years, such as grey granite siding on the interior walls might help.
    As for the Huston Co-Cathedral, I can appreciate simplicity in line of a traditional style, but it verges on being cold and colorless. And I’m surprised to see a large baptismal font placed (after so many years of experimentation) dead center of a processional aisle -think funerals, weddings, not to mention pontifical celebrations; ordinations, ect..
    Moving the font off to one side of the break, or, better yet, cutting a half circle out of the pews in the back would have made more sense and been more in keeping with what others have found works in spacial planning.
    Frankly, the Houston cathedral, inside and out, looks like many churches built in the 40’s and 50’s.
    As an aside, I thought I would never like the Los Angeles Cathedral. That is until I actually saw it in person -though even then I had my doubts. In general I had to admit I found its decoration beautiful, especially the tapestries. But I could not see how it would work as a place of worship (we arrived well before Mass). As the cathedral filled, the choir took its place, and the Mass began, one could see how the liturgy made sense in that sacred space. And the light through those alabaster windows was ethereal! I was just blown away.
    I have not liked modern church architecture because so much of it was bad. But I’m pleased to see a shift in direction.
    By the way, my parish at the time was St. Dominic’s, San Francisco -a real gem of a different era!

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