San Francisco is the home for every type of individual -- from the quirky to the stoic, and the sexually deviant to the taciturn prude, all extremes and differing grades of personalities find places to congregate. Sometimes it seems the City's architecture reflects where distinct groups gather -- from the families in Noe Valley's single unti homes to the young tech employees in sleek skyscrapers.
However, the focus of this week's "Tourism for Locals" deviates from this stereotype and proves that exteriors don't classify those that inhabit them and vice versa. A building that features scenic views of the classic San Francisco skyline, but whose architecture contradicts the classic image of opulent and somber images associated with the Roman Catholic Church: The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption.
Located at the intersection of Geary and Gough, the ecclesiastical building is the principal church for Roman Catholics in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and is the focal point of the Cathedral Hill neighborhood and stands out for its unusually modern design. You don't need to be religious to appreciate the history and design of this progressive building.
Dedicated in 1971, it spans two city blocks and the building itself is 45,000 square feet. The lower levels is a set space for social use rather than worship, according to the San Francisco Travel Association. The Cathedral was designed by famed Italian designer Pietro Belluschi in conjunction with engineer Pier Luigi Nervi and three other San Francisco-based architects.
Belluschi was dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning at the time. He is also responsible for two other classic San Francisco buildings: The 555 California Street building (the second tallest building our city's skyline) and the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.
Although much of today's architecture leans towards modern styles, the traditional space of worship for Catholic parishes and buildings don't tend to break the classic images of European Baroque or a simplified design reminiscent of New England Puritan churches -- the construction of St. Mary's was part of a larger movement to revitalize the structure and order of the Roman Catholic Church.
The building was commissioned just as the Second Vatican Council was convening in Rome. Vatican II was the first major reorganization of the Church since The Council of Trent was ordered in 1545 to address the widespread Protestant Reformation happening in Europe. The council addressed the need to "modernize" the teaching of faith and approach of religiosity in the 20th century and one of aspects that this council influenced was church architecture. The prescriptions of the historic council allowed San Francisco to plan boldly in the building of the new cathedral we have today.
The ceiling is probably the most visible and different in the overall design and it controversial to this day by some members of the Catholic faith. it strongly resembles the agitator of a washing machine, thus earning the nickname of "Our Lady of Maytag Cathedral." Wouldn't it be better to have this kind of scandal than the others that it has lately been known for in recent years?
The interior is a reflection of the exterior, with the ceiling revealing the concrete ribs of the dome and everything from the altar, to pews, to the center crystal display done in the minimalist style. With this stripped down ornamentation, one could get the feeling that faith needs to be reduced to the essential or else one could get lost in the distraction of opulence. There is no need for copius amounts of altars, statues, paintings, colors to remind us that beauty can exist in a space of minimalism and have a deep impact just the same. This notion of simplified transcendence is made tangible by our place in the massive temple. The curvature of the cupola dome with it's rising beams and the four vertical glittering stain glass panels remind the viewer that whatever problems or issues might be consuming them, those issues are truly tiny in comparison with a world that is much bigger and expansive than our immediate surroundings.
While stripped of ornamentation, the cathedral does in turn provide a peaceful space for those trying to escape the busy hustle of City life -- providing a place to engage in private meditation and reflection.
Here are some pointers:
• Enjoy the view: You can see the Transamerica Pyramid, City Hall, and Sutro Tower from this hilly vantage point.
• Try to go before or after scheduled mass times because it would save you the risk of going and realizing that the wrought-iron doors are sealed tightly shut.
St Mary's Cathedral is open to the general public and to those of faiths outside Catholicism.