Ziegler Cooper Architects in Houston, Texas was commissioned by Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza to design the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, and on April 2nd of 2008, the monumental and sacred structure was consecrated. Steeped in both history and faith, it will serve the 1.3 million Roman Catholics in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. The Archbishop?s challenge to his architects was to build a Cathedral for the ages, one of profound spiritual expression and enduring artistic quality.
Scott Ziegler was kind enough to take the time to speak with us about the project, which he calls "a life changing experience."
Mr. Ziegler explains, "We received a call from Archbishop Fiorenza that we had been the selected architectural firm after a pretty long drawn out design competition and interview process. He chose All Saint's Day to call us. It was for a new cathedral in downtown Houston to be the ecclesiastical center of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. The Archbishop and I talked along with our design team at great lengths about many cathedrals around the world. After talking about many cathedrals and styles, I think it was clear that the Bishop wanted something that was very simple, almost monastic. He used the term, "a cathedral of noble simplicity," and to us that meant really concentrating on the worship space to make it as un-cluttered and clean-lined as possible. One thing the Archbishop and the design team agreed upon was that a prayerful atmosphere is better served when there are less distractions, so from that standpoint it's a very crisp-lined more modern expression but it does have historical roots in Italian Romanesque. If you really understand Italian Romanesque, it too is devoid of a lot of ornament. It wasn't like the Baroque or Gothic churches of later centuries, it was a much simpler design."
"When we finished the design before construction was authorized, we received a fax from The Vatican. It was a picture of Bishop Fiorenza and Pope John Paul who was blessing the design of the cathedral. That's part of the approval process. In order to build a cathedral, you have to get the blessing of the Pope. So we have a photograph of that, and it's a very moving photograph."
Construction began in March of 2004. "There is so much of cathedral design and history and culture that goes into its making because the architecture and design of a cathedral as a worship space should inspire people into prayer, and how do you do that? We talked a lot about the kinds of feelings that people get when they walk into cathedrals, whether they're European or American doesn't matter, they all have the same qualities. There's a sense of tranquility, of peacefulness, but I think that we distilled it down to three intrinsic qualities that we believe are achieved in our design. The first is the sense of magnificent interplay of light and space, to create a very serene and sacred space. So our tools as the architect are to create large volumes of space that remind people when they step into a cathedral that this is a different place than the world outside, this is a house of God. That vertical expression, which is the second goal, our second quality, is a tool that all cathedrals of any substance have because you're really, again, trying to make a sense of transcendence from earth to heaven, and that verticality can only be achieved through proper proportioning of the cathedral. So the cathedral has very strict proportion that's in harmony of height to width. It's in a two-to-one proportion and it's very mathematically balanced. That height is then accented by a floating dome that rests and crowns the transept and the nave of the cathedral to reinforce that sense of transcendence. The third is just the monumental scale of cathedrals. Cathedrals are a different scale, deliberately, than other buildings. The scale of cathedrals is to separate them from their neighborhood buildings and make them more special. It should also be a model building for the neighborhood, one that really stands out as being high quality. So the monumentality is not so much to make you feel small, but to make you feel the presence and the greatness of God in acknowledging the spiritual world. So those are the spiritual qualities we feel are intrinsic in cathedrals, and three that we tried to very much capture and I think we were successful in doing so."
The Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is a structure filled with light, which was deliberate on the part of the architectural design team to create spiritual symbolism. Ziegler explains, "That was probably the most important part of the cathedral. When we began the project, I took one of my Senior Designers with me to Europe and we walked through probably twenty cathedrals, mostly in Italy. I've studied cathedrals all my life but the most inspiring cathedrals are those that have high, tall clerestory lights, lights that are above the nave and they allow the light to penetrate down deeply into the space. In our view as designers, we found the cathedrals that left those clerestory lights uncluttered and not overwrought with heavy stained glass to be the more successful designs because they let that light be felt in the cathedral. Many cathedrals over decades and centuries would enclose clerestory with very dark stained glass that we think takes away from that spiritual expression and the sacredness of the cathedral. So these tall windows in the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart are probably seventy feet off the floor of the cathedral nave, and they're very tall themselves and they create a perimeter of light around the entire cathedral. And the dome itself, which is a shallow dome, has a clerestory around it as well, to let the light in, and at all times of the day it's really quite interesting, you see beams of light filtering through the space."
"We do have some stained glass which is rather transparent, but the twelve apostles surround the clerestory of the dome, and the way they're designed, we asked these stained glass artists to keep some transparency to those windows so that we'd get that true unfiltered light into the cathedral, and they did a nice job in doing so."
"There are a ton of artists that go into making a cathedral, and that was perhaps the most interesting aspect of coordination and design. We brought in a Liturgical Consultant who appoints many of the icons and symbols that enrich the interior of the cathedral such as the stained glass, the altar cross, the elements of the baptismal font. They also bring with that skill set a cadre of artisans. So Rohn & Associates was chosen as the liturgical consultant. They worked with the architect and Archbishop to make sure that the placement of these elements, including the ambo, the Cathedra or Bishop's chair, and the altar were all within the doctrine of the Roman Catholic liturgy. The design of those elements goes through an intense scrutiny. So we worked with Rohn & Associates for about two years, they came in just as the building started construction and the studio artists that we dealt with were stained glass people from Florence, Italy. Their name is Mellini and they are the only living stained glass artisans that have stained glass in St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. So they're very talented. And their work is best expressed in that huge resurrection of Christ window on the south nave of the Co-Cathedral, it must be forty feet tall and twenty feet wide and it's very beautiful. It's one of those rare artisan contributions that you see in Cathedrals in Europe but you don't often see them in America. They also did the stained glass for the rose windows, there are two rose windows, one on the east and west transept and a rose window above the altar."
"Additionally, we had some artisans that were brought in from Florence that were stone sculptors. On our website there is a statue of Christ the Sacred Heart carved in Carrera white marble and Mary Magdalen, which are both twelve feet tall and probably weigh ten-thousand or twelve thousand pounds each. They are magnificent, they're just pure white marble. The stone is from the same quarry that Michelangelo carved the statue of David from, they're the same scale and with the same quality of movement and detail. They were designed by an artist named Pedrini, and they're hung to float in a space that we created that has a curved wall that is gold leafed with a striated reed-like wood which sets off the white Carrera marble. The reeded wood is complimented by a vertical window that's forty feet tall that lets the light in, and showers natural light on the sculptures so you really get the sculptural quality by daylight. We didn't know when we were designing the cathedral what would be hung in those spaces until the liturgical consultant came in. We designed this cathedral for the ages and it was intended to have a five-hundred year lifetime, and all the walls in the cathedral are cast-in-place concrete, the full height. So we have a concrete wall behind each of the sculptures and we embedded steel plates. If you can envision the statues having a fin-like steel plate in their back that's embedded into the stone, and then a female receptacle on the wall embedded in the concrete, the statues are literally plugged into the wall and then bolted into place. So those are pretty special pieces."
"The altar stone, the ambo, and the Cathedra, those were all from an Ethiopian red marble from Africa. It was chosen because sacred heart, blood red if you will, was the color that they felt best symbolically represented Christ's sacred heart. That's a single piece of stone that's probably, the altar is anyway, eight feet long, six feet wide and one foot thick, it probably weighs five-thousand pounds."
"For the exterior we used Indiana limestone. We looked at a lot of limestones from Europe and from the states and our conclusion was that we'd be best served by the consistency and color and density of the stone that was provided by Indiana. We went up to their quarry and researched where it had been used. Most people don't realize how prevalent Indiana limestone is in many of the monumental buildings in America today, for example the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the National Cathedral."
"The bell tower is called a campanelli and is something that the Archbishop wanted to compliment the cathedral. Throughout Europe part of the call to prayer and service is the ringing of the bells, so it has a very important auditory part of the ritual of worship, and in Italy you can almost go by without a clock because all throughout the day they're ringing the bells every hour, on the hour." The bell tower of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart houses a carillon of bronze bells. A carillon is a musical instrument consisting of at least 23 cast bronze cup-shaped bells which are played one after the other to play a melody, or sounded together to play a chord. The greatest concentration of carillons is still found in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Northern France, where they were symbols of civic pride and status. The bells for the Co-Cathedral were cast by The Royal Eijsbouts Bellfounders in The Netherlands.
"I think the biggest challenge was in the design decisions that were made. If you can imagine the kinds of emotions that designing a cathedral have for everyone involved, it's coming to a consensus on what materials, what color of the stone, how it should look. It was a daunting task, maybe even more so than I ever reckoned for.
Linbeck was the general contractor. "They did an extraordinary job of putting forth the very best effort to make sure the quality was upheld and did a great job." When construction was completed, it was time for the consecration and dedication of the cathedral.
"The Bishop and the Cardinal chose April 2nd of 2008 to consecrate the cathedral. It's not really considered a cathedral until it's consecrated with the oils and incense and special ceremony. It was a three-hour affair. It was a ritual like you've never seen before and I was quite privileged to be there," says Ziegler.
"The dedication was very special. There must have been a parade of about eight-hundred Bishops and Cardinals and priests and people of the Roman Catholic faith. Then there were people who came as parishioners so that must have been about 2000 people altogether. There were Cardinals from Europe and from the U.S. so it was quite a parade of celebration. A lot of interesting history and culture went into the dedication, things that I was not aware of. For example, The Cardinal had requested of The Vatican and The Pope some relics that would be consecrated with the cathedral and put into a reliquary, a box that we designed to go below the altar, and the reliquary houses the remains, or relics of saints. I think there were eight saints, but Elizabeth Ann Seton, the very first saint in America, there is a relic of hers. The most special one which I didn't know was going to be there was actually a fragment from the original crucifix which Christ was crucified on, which is over 2,000 years old. It remains in the reliquary below the altar as part of the spiritual being of the cathedral. The Vatican sent over holy oils and they actually rub down the altar stone and anoint the altar. And then incense would burn to fully sage and baptize, if you will, the cathedral. That was part of the ritual and ceremony."
"One of the observations we had over the course of the project was you're designing a building that's going to be here for centuries after we are gone and you're wrapping up the great human events of life - birth, baptism, marriage, funerals, death, and eternal life. All of those are captured and everyone's view of those is so emotional that you have to capture those feelings and try to hit a moving target - no pun intended, but you want it to be moving, but you also want it to be spiritually appropriate. So those great epics of the human condition are part of the design as well."
"We have to give credit to the entire team because a project like this doesn't happen with singular people. It's a team of people that are led to a common vision and I think we had a clear vision in the creation of the cathedral that everyone worked towards. We find that from the design team, the construction team, to the sub-contractors, to the artisans, to the people within the clergy - everyone put in an extraordinary effort that elevated this to a higher form of art. Throughout history cathedrals in cities have always been symbols of certainly faith and beauty, but they also are technological and artistic achievements of a particular era, and I don't think this is any different. So for us designing the cathedral was one of the most profoundly rewarding and humbling and challenging experiences that an architect could ever hope for."