Grace Cathedral sits atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. While it may once have looked out over the city, the surrounding buildings have sprung up and blocked the view. Nonetheless, the building is beautiful. The area is home to some of the wealthiest San Francisco. Wikipedia claims that the area is sometimes referred to as Snob Hill – although they also suggest that Nob is etymologically related to Nabob, which means a wealthy and distinguished person: i.e., a snob.
I particularly enjoyed Huntington Park, which sits immediately in front of the cathedral. The manicured gardens, playful fountains, and artists displaying their wares added a nice touch to the space. It was very warm and inviting, and there were a lot of people out and about enjoying the nice weather.
The Cathedral itself was really interesting for me, having seen quite a few European cathedrals now (and since you all know I’m a cathedral nutter, I’m sure you’ll have patience with me on this post!)
Designed in the French-Gothic style, Grace Cathedral was only completed in 1964. It’s a Baby Cathedral! Although the congregation has an older history (George W Bush’s great-great-grandfather was a rector there in the late 1800s), the current building is fairly new. What I found most interesting is that the builders decided to use a very traditional cathedral style rather than trying to do something new and modern (unlike the Cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption, the Catholic church in San Francisco, which was completed in 1970.)
Alex and I have talked about the whole form follows function debate, and I think cathedrals and churches are a perfect example of this. If you look up at the ceiling of most cathedrals, you’ll notice the barrels and vaults that make up the beautiful shapes that I always rave about. Sometimes these are ribbed – meaning there is a firm edge. The barrel or vault shape was used (way back in the day), because the arch is a good means of supporting a great amount of weight (i.e. the ceiling) without use of concrete or steel (neither of which existed yet). But the arch, as the Romans knew, distributed weight along the side in equal parts, meaning that the barrel vault can support heavier ceilings.
Okay, to get the interesting part. These barrels, vaults, arches, and ribs were originally designed for a structural purpose – their form followed their function. However, with modern building materials and techniques, we don’t really need to use them. And yet, Grace Cathedral was built with the same barrels, vaults, arches, and ribs. Except not quite. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the ribs in the picture below are not attached to anything – they are floating, or flying, all alone! They were placed simply for their appearance, which is most attractive. So now we have an architectural feature that was designed for a structural purpose, but is now used for pure aesthetics. At what point did something useful become something beautiful?
If you give me a few glasses of wine, I could ruminate on that subject for hours! Luckily for you all, it’s before 11am and (even though I’m in England, the land of sodden drunks) I have not yet imbibed my daily pint. (Just kidding Mom! I don’t drink a daily pint – promise!)
One of the other features of Grace Cathedral that I really enjoyed were the two labyrinths. Now, before you get labyrinth confused with maze, I have to explain the difference. A maze has multiple routes, with twists and turns and choices. A labyrinth has only a single path, and while there may be twists and turns, you never deviate from a single route.
The labyrinths at Grace Cathedral are built in to the floors, one inside the church, and one outside. They both have the same design, based on the floor pattern at the cathedral in Chartres, France. By walking the labyrinth, you’re supposed to enter a meditative state. There’s a lot of history with labyrinths, and I think I’ll have to learn more about them at some point.
Alex’s favorite feature of the Cathedral was the brightly-coloured murals along the sides of the nave. These depict historical scenes from San Francisco’s history – the first Padres preaching to the Indians, the Gold Rush, the Earthquake, etc. I wish they had one based on Silicon Valley, but I’m not sure how Google or Twitter would be represented! I also really liked this, as it had a similar effect as a stained glass window, but it was on the ground floor and more approachable. (You can do more with paint than with glass, in terms of detail work.)
On the whole, I think Grace Cathedral is a lovely building. The fact that it was built with concrete rather than stone or marble kind of ruined it (slightly). The church lacks the gravitas of some of the European churches, but perhaps I am biased. It’s only been around for 40 years or so – I’d like to go back when it’s 400 years old to see how it’s aged!
Posted on 14/02/2011, in Castles & Cathedrals, travel, Travel to the States and tagged architecture, California, Cathedral, Grace Cathedral San Francisco, labyrinths, Nob Hill, Nob Hill San Francisco, Photography, San Francisco, stained glass. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.