THE BUILDING is a core of substance, strength, and peace, standing quietly at the corner of College Avenue and Dwight Way. It looks to be an im-penetrable sanctuary. The massive gray concrete wall, the overhanging slab of roof, the strong lateral lines of the design seem to define a shelter. It suggests the serenity you need to know yourself and to commune with God.
But the walls along the inner corridors are of glass and reveal a brightly-lit tide of people coming and going in the daily business of spiritual, academic, and community interests. It looks alive.
This is a modern building in materials used – concrete and glass. It has a clean, elemental pur-posefulness, and is practical. Yet the form, the color, and the visual impact combine to suggest the primitive. Its substance seems drawn up from the earth itself. The bulk of the building suggests this by the simplicity of its gray cement walls, whose only adornment is the texture imprinted by the planking of the forms against which it is set.
At the curbside of a campus city, in the midst of urban life, and as a participant in the life, this edifice is in harmony with its surroundings. With its heavy dimensions, its strong lines, and its utilitarianism, it fits, where all around it are high-rise dormitories, university buildings, student centers, and the flow of traffic.
The building conveys a sense of the primeval, of spiritual realities that have lasted down through the ages. It is an architectural statement of Christianity with its roots in the altar of Abraham and in the catacombs of Rome, but is compatible with an era when space and human freedom are explored.
ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN is by the eminent San Franciscan, Mario Ciampi, an architect of international reputation, and his associate, Richard L. Jorasch. Construction was sponsored by the Diocese of Oakland and the Newman Hall community.
The purposes of this center were defined through ten years of prior planning by Newman advisors – clergy, laity, and university faculty. The intent was to create in the university and in the urban environment a unified complex of church and a student meeting place adequate to the dynamism of Catholic religious experience emerging from the second Vatican Council. Architects were admonished to seek a design that would inspire the faithful to “come joyfully” to worship.
There is an harmony between the liturgy and the chapel-center. The building reinforces the relevance of Christ’s message to current times. It conveys many of the newly emphasized aspects of Christianity, its concern with the human in a joyful and hopeful manner, its openness, its freedom of spirit and its deliberate participation in daily life.
THE CHAPEL is the principal element in the center. It occupies the largest area. Its back wall spans 120 feet, and the congregation fans closely about the sanctuary, whose floor is a gentle mound, rather than a formal elevation. There is no barrier bet-ween the altar and the congregation; and often the people, particularly the children, move forward to assemble around the altar itself.
The great planes of the bare cement walls, 30 feet high, and the white ceiling, create a sense of spaciousness. This vast gray shelter seems a pri-vate, protected place, but not hemmed in; the walls enclose, but do not confine. Rather, they open up to the sky, an impression due to the fact that the walls actually do not reach the roof but end short of it and are rimmed completely around at the top with glass in varied, randomly-shaped panes. Above this airy aperture lies the immense six-foot-thick roof which looks to be a massive slab of concrete but is honey-combed inside with steel framework. The whole 133′ by 93′ block is so delicately contrived that it rests entirely upon four stainless steel pins embedded in pillars. It is built to move on these pins in response to expansion or contraction from the weather – and to ride out an earthquake tremor.
The contrast between the enormous plane of the roof with its apparent weight and the delicate glass upon which it seems to float, magnifies the impression of unimpeded spaciousness within the chapel. By the arrangement of space, the architect has established an atmosphere of peace, protection and freedom.
This is augmented by the extraordinary ar-rangement of the four walls. Each cement wall is free-standing. Each forms a corner, no two alike in the angles created; and the walls, instead of joining, overlap so that the diagonally slanting edge of one wall stands free a few feet in front of the wall behind it; and they are thus layered around the room like bent cards balanced on edge. The space between is glass. Architecturally ingenious, this arrangement reinforces the peacefulness and the sense of unobstructed outreach within the chapel.
THE WORKS OF SCULPTURE within the chapel were expressly created for it by the renowned Berkeley artist, Stephen de Staebler, an outstanding ceramist of the West Coast. The five pieces of fired clay are: the altar, the tabernacle, the lectern, the presider’s chair, and the large crucifix against the sanctuary wall.
These were conceived as an extension of the same concepts the architect developed in the building. Such harmony between a structure and its fitting is rare. Both the artist and the architect strove to project a sense of simplicity and straightforward-ness suitable for the contemporary young – and a sense of peace; not a bland, passive peace, but a peace which recognizes a potential for action, peace which can be comfortable with energy.
Against the varied grays of the chapel’s cement shell and its quiet horizontal lines, the diagonal thrust of the wall edges inject this element of dynamic. Similarly, symbolic of energy are the shapings of the clay pieces and the subtle colors,light yellow tones, and ruddy fire tones bursting through the surface earth shades.
These are astonishing works, different from ordinary church furnishings. It is unusual to find even one work of clay of such size in a museum. Yet here are five pieces of great size designed for functional daily use. Work in clay on such a dimension is difficult, for the clay contracts about five percent in drying and another five percent in heating; and this shrinkage must occur without rupture in the artist’s design.
THE TABERNACLE located at one side is like a miniature grotto, the clay formed as though to compress and hold secure the tabernacle. It draws the eye because here the color of the clay is light and most golden.
THE PRESIDER’S CHAIR is a rounded, almost pillowy contour, despite its hard construction – a ruddy desert red in color.
THE LECTERN presents the congregation with a bulky, earth-formed look. This conceals an efficient and comfortable work space for the speaker, close to the listeners – the congregation.
THE CRUCIFIX is Christ crucified – a sculpted life-scale figure on a ceramic cross against the stark gray sanctuary wall that first catches attention when one enters the chapel. It makes a strong statement of the church’s turn towards hopefulness and joy. This is no conventional Christ, such as artists have depicted through the centuries, wracked by pain,tormented by a crown of thorns, succumbing to death. This is a Christ at the point of breaking through the agony towards resurrection. The corpus is still pinioned to the Cross, but the body is luminously alive, the figure alerted, the attentive head uplifted, the eyes open and transfixed upon the distance. A dark cloud surrounds the Cross, a gray massed form with which the artist has framed the crucifix, establishing its place against the wall. The rising Christ seems to be emerging from this surrounding shadow, or drawing it with Him as though He would draw humanity upwards. This is a Man who has conquered death. It is a Christ lifting from the Cross.
THE ALTAR and its companion pieces seem to emerge from the floor itself as though from the very earth. The huge altar, which looks to be of chiseled stone, is the sturdiest and largest of the five pieces. By its size it dominates the sanctuary, its base pierced by two openings which permit one to see the movement of the priest behind, and which reinforce the impression of primitive rock by their shaping.
THE STATIONS OF THE CROSS hang on the rear walls of the chapel and are depicted in reproductions of pencil drawings by the award winning Bay Area artist and architect, Randy Dixon. The drawings have been translated into painted glass windows at Saint Mary’s Church in Lakeport, California, and continue to receive praise for their beauty.
The fourteen stations are singular incidents in the passion and death of Jesus, from Pilate’s judgment to Jesus’ burial. These drawings make new one’s experience with Jesus on his journey to Calvary. They allow one to not just recognize, but to feel weight, pain, humiliation, forgiveness, tenderness and sorrow. The works are historically accurate so that one may know Jesus the man as well as Jesus our God. The point of view in each station is varied so as to include the viewer more intimately with the experience. The stations provide points of contemplation along our journey.