Breast of Burden : St Mary’s Cathedral


Breast of Burden : St Mary's Cathedral
Photo: alsuga | Flickr

In brief:

Saint Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco was designed by architect Pier Luigi Nervi in 1971 and built amid an atmosphere of controversy. The building has been described by many as resembling an overgrown washing machine agitator, and several San Franciscans have taken to calling it “Our Lady of Maytag” for this resemblance. Others find the swooping pyramid shape refreshingly modern for sacred Catholic architecture.


The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, known familiarly as St. Mary’s Cathedral, in San Francisco has become a landmark that annually draws thousands of people to this sacred structure, which combines the rich traditions of the Catholic faith with modern technology.

The cathedral’s striking design flows from the geometric principle of the hyperbolic paraboloid, in which the structure curves upward in graceful lines from the four comers meeting in a cross. Measuring 255 feet square, the cathedral soars to 190 feet high and is crowned with a 55 foot golden cross.

Four corner pylons, each one designed to withstand ten million pounds of pressure, support the cupola, which rises 19 stories above the floor. The pylons measure just 24 feet in circumference at their narrowest point and extend 90 feet down into bedrock. The inner surface of the cupola is made up of 1680 pre-cast triangular coffers of 128 different sizes, designed to distribute the weight of the cupola. At each comer of the cathedral, vast windows look out upon spectacular views of San Francisco, the City of Saint Francis of Assisi. The cathedral’s red brick floor recalls early Mission architecture, and the rich heritage of the local church.

Above the altar is a kinetic sculpture by Richard Lippold. Alive with reflected light, the 14 tiers of triangular aluminum rods symbolize the channel of love and grace from God to His people, and their prayers and praise rising to him. The sculpture, suspended by gold wires, is 15 stories high and weighs one ton.

The ‘boob’ story:

Urban legend also has it that the Catholic Church sued the architect over the appearance of the breast, claiming that the appearance of a naked breast on the side of a cathedral somehow mocks the Church, which is reputed for being uptight about sexuality.

On the issue of the Catholic Church’s lawsuit, extensive research shows no evidence that the church ever filed suit against Nervi or even threatened to. The rumor could have started by the “telephone game” effect after individuals associated with the church or the Archdiocese made private commentary on the shape, but even this is idle speculation.