It happens throughout the day: Traffic slows near the corner of Grand Avenue and Harrison Street in Oakland as motorists glimpse Christ the Light Cathedral climbing skyward. Cell phones and cameras emerge from car windows to snap photos.

For now, its warm blond bones lie bare. Soon, glass panels will cloak the massive ark-shaped sanctuary. It will anchor a landscaped complex encompassing an open plaza, smaller chapels, offices, a rectory and residence for Bishop Allen Vigneron, gathering places, gardens and a conference center.

It is the newest cathedral in the nation, second only in expense to Los Angeles' Our Lady of the Angels.

The $190 million, 224,000-square-foot complex replaces St. Francis de Sales, fatally damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

When it opens in fall 2008, the cathedral will bring together two parishes, St. Francis and St. Mary's, also in downtown Oakland.

The sanctuary's pivotal feature is its use of light, which architect Craig Hartman said he introduced in "the most poetic ways" possible.

"It makes the presence of God manifest," he said. "The promise is of a glowing, luminous space -- very spiritual in the way (of) a redwood forest, with light coming through the trees, diffuse and luminous. As the sun moves across the building, (the light) will constantly change."

It's not like anything Hartman has ever built, or has ever seen, and that's no accident.

The plan won Hartman the San Francisco American Institute of Architects Design Award. Hartman has been jetting between projects here and in Beijing, where he designed the U.S. Embassy building on one end of town and the 22-building Beijing Finance Street on the other.

Critics say the money could have been better spent elsewhere, but proponents say the sight of the soaring sanctuary has stirred beatitude throughout the diocese -- and helped spawn a construction renaissance along Lake Merritt.

Within a short span, developers plan to build a restaurant, a Whole Foods Market, and hundreds of business and residential units nearby.

"What Lake people have been talking about for years is finally happening," said Mike Brown, cathedral communications director.

"It's an act of hope and commitment," said Arthur Holder, dean of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. "It's a kind of positive statement about the future of the church, especially in the downtown area."

The structure is hewn from 26 110-foot curved Douglas fir ribs and 768 horizontal struts, spaced by 26 101-foot high laminated mullions. The curved supports are cemented at the root and held in place at the top by a steel ring; outward pressure exerts a third type of support.

The entire structure rests on a foundation of base isolators intended to protect the cathedral in an earthquake by giving it some flexibility of movement.

"It's really quite interesting and exciting," said Richard Kieckhefer, a professor at Northwestern University who has studied church architecture. "I am particularly interested in the treatment of light."

Only eight curved pieces remained to be set in place Wednesday. Workers prepared to pour the last bit of concrete into a mold for the main entryway. Two sets of massive double doors will open out onto Lake Merritt. By July, crews will begin cloaking the frame in hundreds of glass panels.

Each day, engineers who work in nearby buildings wander over to check the building's progress.

"They're out here every day like locusts," chuckled Brown about the curious engineers.

It may not be the most adventurous cathedral architecture in the world. That honor may belong to the Catedral de Maringa in Brazil, whose conical tower and surrounding geometric protrusions were inspired by Russian sputnik satellites.

And it certainly isn't taking the longest time to build: Construction on France's Notre Dame broke ground in 1163 and wrapped up 182 years later in 1345.

Nor is it the first cathedral to rise from the wreckage of an earthquake: A magnitude 9.5 temblor battered Chile's Valdivia Cathedral in 1960. The structure has been rebuilt 15 times since the 16th century because of damage from quakes and fires.

But Christ the Light is far pricier, and it's the cost that has ignited discord.

Estimates skyrocketed from $131 million in 2003 to $190 million in 2007.

The costs rose partly because of inflation, and partly because some figures could not be pinned down accurately before construction began, Brown said.

Parents in the San Ramon Valley had long hoped the diocese would make building a new parochial high school a priority over the cathedral.

"It might be more prudent and productive to build fewer grand cathedrals and more Catholic high schools," parishioner Bruce Bergondy of Hayward said. There are too few Catholic high schools in the suburbs, yet that's where most Catholics live, he said.

But proponents point out that the cathedral was financed through donations solicited specifically for the project.

None of the financing has come from the $350 million the Oakland Diocese spends annually on social services, schools or church administration, according to the church's finance committee.

Arguments over construction costs also wracked the Los Angeles Diocese when it spent more than $180 million to replace its quake-damaged Cathedral of Saint Vibiana. Critics dubbed its replacement the "Taj Mahony," believing it to represent the oversized dreams of Cardinal Roger Mahony.

Now, motor coaches line up outside the boxy, auburn Our Lady of the Angels to see the cathedral where actor Gregory Peck's remains are interred.

In Los Angeles, members of the Catholic Workers movement protested the investment in bricks and mortar when services for the poor were so desperately needed.

The director of Catholic Workers of Oakland, on the other hand, was persuaded by Pulitzer Prize winning architectural critic Allen Temko to support the cathedral, despite its cost.

The pair were among 143 people involved in early planning meetings.

"I had my opportunity to voice my hesitation back in the pre-planning process," said Margaret Roncolli. "Allen Temko kind of changed my mind on the thing. Even (Catholic Workers founder) Dorothy Day said even the poor need beautiful places to worship."

In 1821, the Baltimore Cathedral became the first major religious building constructed in America after the adoption of the Constitution. Its first major renovation was just completed.

In the past decade, dioceses in Seattle, San Jose, Rochester, N.Y.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and other cities have undertaken extensive cathedral renovations.

But the building of a new cathedral is rare -- so rare that two art historians teamed up to teach a class in cathedral architecture at the Graduate Theological Union focusing on Christ the Light.

"I think it's wonderful," said Mia Mochizuki, one of the teachers. "The design combines the ethereal and the grounded."

Rebecca Rosen Lum covers religion. Reach her at 925-977-8506 or rrosenlum@cctimes.com.

The numbers

  • 224,000 square feet: size of entire complex

  • 53,000 cubic yards: amount of soil removed during excavation

  • 60,750 tons: amount of concrete poured

  • 15 feet: height of surrounding concrete base walls supporting the wooden structure

  • 110 feet: height of 26 curved Douglas fir ribs

  • 101 feet: height of 26 straight vertical fir mullions

  • 768: number of Douglas fir horizontal louvers

  • 1,028: number of 4.5-foot-by-10-foot glass panes that will envelope the wood structure

  • 94,000: number of pixels in the Omega Wall, through which light will pass, illuminating the Christ in Majesty, an image from Chartres Cathedral in France

  • 36: number of friction pendulum double-concave base isolators, each of which weighs 4,200 pounds, protecting the cathedral against earthquake

  • 1,300: number of crypts the cathedral will hold

  • 1,450: number of niches it will contain

  • 200: parking spaces

    Source: Christ the Light Cathedral communications office