Where the Second Vatican Council and Modern Architecture Converge

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St. Francis de Sales, Oakland, CA, (ca. 1970)

The history of the cathedral of the Diocese of Oakland is instructive for understanding the early influence of the Second Vatican Council on the subsequent design of many Catholic churches. The recently-installed bishop of Oakland at the time, His Excellency Floyd Begin, the Diocese’ first bishop, had attended every session of the Council and returned in 1964 determined to renovate the existing cathedral, built in 1893, rather than spend a large sum on of money on a new one.


St. Francis de Sales became known as the “…first cathedral in the United States to be completely remodeled according to the liturgical spirit of the Second Vatican Council”. (All quotations herein are from: Jeffrey M. Burns and Mary Carmen Bautista, We are the Church: A History of the Diocese of Oakland. Strasbourg: Editions du Singe, 2001). The enthusiastic bishop had a bold plan for remodeling the Cathedral:

“With the priest now facing the people, the bishop found the venerable stained glass windows behind the alter distracting. ‘The rather colorful windows in the sanctuary impeded the vision of the service, just like the headlights of an oncoming car do.’ The stained glass windows were covered over by redwood paneling. The interior was whitewashed and the exterior was painted in a creme color [it was red brick]. The alter rail was removed as were all the statues, except for that of Jesus. In sum, the remodeled building followed Vatican II directives and created ‘…an atmosphere conducive to participation, worship, and prayer.'”

The Cathedral interior before the renovation:


The Cathedral interior after the renovation:

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The new altar:

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Since the inspiration for these changes was “…the liturgical spirit of the Second Vatican Council”, by 1969 the Cathedral’s liturgical spirit had incorporated elements from contemporary arts:


“Dance, slide presentations, photography, innovative preaching [?], all became regular features in the Cathedral liturgies. …In late 1969, the Cathedral featured an Advent series entitled ‘We Hold a Strange Hope’ to explore how to maintain hope in the midst of the social chaos that was engulfing the United States. armstrongThe first week featured four blown-up portraits hanging in the sanctuary — Che Guevara, Joan Baez, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Neil Armstrong” (p.52).

The historians report that the organ was replaced by an ensemble of strings, brass, piano, and various musicians (p.51). The liturgical innovations attracted national attention:

“In May, 1971, Time Magazine observed, ‘twice each Sunday, the music runs the scale between such unlikely extremes as Gregorian chant and rock. On one recent Sunday, the mixture embraced both Bach’s Aire for the G-String and Amazing Grace. On another, included a Hayden trio, Bob Dylan’s The Times They are A Changin’ and Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is our God.'”

The historians recount that in 1971, during one of the themed liturgies, a song was performed that was composed especially for the occasion, “A Traditionalist’s Lament”. It mocked anyone still attached to the traditional form of the mass. It was sung to the tune of a song from the film Mary Poppins, “Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious”:


Introibo. Tantum. Ergo. Kyrie Eleison.

Give me back my pamphlet rack and surplices with lace on.

If Catholic means rock-and-roll I’d rather be a Mason.

Introibo. Tantum. Ergo. Kyrie Eleison.

There were several verses to go with the refrain. I don’t think one could say it was even borderline blasphemy, but deliberate and cold-hearted. The historians triumphantly concluded, “In short, the Cathedral liturgy was achieving what the council had mandated” (p.53).

But did the Council really mandate that? Bishop Begin obviously thought it did, and he claimed to having had participated in the writing of VII documents. According to the specific document dealing with the reform of the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concillium, the task of liturgical reform was chiefly the responsibility of the bishop (Article 22:2). The document nevertheless establishes limitations, though of a vague nature, on that reform:

“…[T]here must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (Article 23).

Some of the directives of the Council seem like a physician’s prescription for an ailment, but without indicating the dosage. It may be the right medicine, but the doctor leaves the dosage up to the patient’s discretion.

Some years later the Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales in Oakland was severely damaged in an earthquake and had to be demolished, leaving the diocese without a cathedral for more than twenty years. It has recently been replaced by the post-modernist Cathedral of Christ the Light, at a cost of almost 200 million, the most expensive church ever built in this country. While in the case of St. Francis de Sales it was the liturgical reforms resulting from the Council that guided the bishop in the redesigning of his Cathedral, the design of the new Cathedral appears to have been left to professional architects.

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Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA


A much-discussed article by conservative New York Times columnist and Catholic convert, Ross Douthat, suggests that liturgy is generally not the guiding force behind modern Church architecture. The new cathedral in Oakland is truly breathtaking as an example of modern architecture, but does it inspire spirituality? He wonders whether it’s even possible for modern architecture to have a positive effect on spirituality:

“I have never seen a church or cathedral executed successfully in any of the architectural styles that have prevailed since the 1920s and ’30s. From Italy to San Francisco, the showpiece modern churches tend to succeed as monuments but fail as spaces for prayer and worship; their smaller imitators, scattered across the American suburbs, are almost always blights on whatever religious community is unhappy enough to occupy them. In the end, I suspect that something in the spirit of modern architecture is inherently secular: The forms and tendencies can be appropriate for office buildings, government houses and museums, but churches adopt them at their peril.” (link)

When it comes to the building of a new Church edifice, particularly a cathedral, there is a lot of pressure on the decision-makers: advisers, financiers, and the bishop, to come up with a novel and innovative design, and more importantly, make an architectural break with the past. Herein lies the problem; by stating that dioceses who employ modern secular architecture in church construction do it “at their own peril”, Mr. Douthat implies that there may be a spiritual price to pay.

What Mr. Douthat may be getting at are the consequences of a break with the past when it comes to building new churches. A perfect example comes from an architectural review of Oakland’s new Cathedral alongside and in comparison to another cathedral that was dedicated about the same time. The critique come from the respected architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros; the comparison is with the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston, which is also considered modern but retained many traditional elements:

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Houston, TX

The critic concentrates on the problems of retention of traditional Christian typological elements in the design of a Catholic church using a modern style of architecture. In the case of the Houston Cathedral the architects were successful:

“…[T]he 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.”

Typology is the study of words, events, symbols, etc. that have a broader meaning then their immediate literary context. Numbers are the most common “types” found in the Bible;  there were forty days of rain, forty years in the Sinai wilderness, forty days fasting in the desert etc. It tells us that these events are connected or somehow foreshadow each other. Usually, Christian typology is studied strictly in the context of the Bible; Old Testament types foreshadow events in the New Testament. However, both Old and New Testament types continued to foreshadow the life of the Catholic Church and its liturgical manifestations.

Probably the best book on the subject is The Bible and the Liturgy by Jean Danielou. He looks into the Bible for events that foreshadow Catholic liturgy. One example he explores is the narrative of the flood and how it foreshadowed the sacrament of baptism. The ark going through the water represented the purification of mankind just as for those being baptized, water represents purification from original sin.

Octagonal baptismal font from the sixth century
Octagonal baptismal font in the Houston Cathedral

Also, he points out that the number of people on the ark is eight, the number that represents the new creation, the eighth day.
Sunday is considered the eighth day as the day of Christ’s resurrection. This is why in most Catholic churches the baptismal fonts are octagonal (at least at the time he wrote the book — 1956). Baptism removes the stain of original sin enabling a new creation. The Cathedral in Houston has an octagonal baptismal font, the Oakland Cathedral does not. There are hundreds of such typological connections between the Roman Catholic Church and the Bible.

Professor Salingaros concludes,

“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. …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 don’t see this as healthy or as appropriate for housing the timeless truths offered by religion.”

The professor actually considers the Oakland Cathedral both modern and post modern, with deconstructivist elements throughout (think of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles), a style referred to as “controlled chaos”. That there was an intentional break with the past was  clear to the critic in the use of “brutalist concrete”, which he called “the dead giveaway”:

“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.”

Whether or not the Council intended so, its open-ended call for liturgical reforms led to discontinuity. The richness and diversity of Catholic tradition going back millennia are often discouraged in today’s Church, in its liturgy, design, and ornamentation. This trend intersects perfectly with modern and post-modern architecture, which by their very nature avoid preserving traditional elements of the past. Instead of bishops insisting on the incorporation of Christian typologies in their architectural designs, as in the case of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, in too many cases “…architects have resorted to using typologies from the modernist form language.” I recommend taking the time to read Mr. Salingaros’ highly readable piece: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2012/a-tale-of-two-cathedrals-why-traditional-versus-modernist-tells-only-part-of-the-story



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