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.

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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.

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