Can architecture console mourners as they experience the pain that accompanies grief?

Aalst, Belgium – Although grief seems an unlikely companion for architecture, in embracing this complex emotion architects are building spaces for mourning and memorialization that carry an awareness of death and bereavement. Ceremonies for the loss of a loved one are highly sensitive and personal, yet the settings in which they occur are borrowed environments that often fail to offer comfort to mourners. A church, for example, can isolate those who don’t participate in organized religion, and a crematorium can feel more industrial than inviting. Can architecture reshape the way we bid farewell to the departed?

Amsterdam architecture studio HofmanDujardin approached the subject with a concept design. The Funeral Ceremony Centre has no client and no plans for construction. It’s a response to architect Michiel Hofman’s personal experience. After organizing a gathering to remember a close friend, Hofman had no choice but to rent a space that didn’t feel right for the occasion. ‘Most of these environments don’t match our expectations,’ he said. ‘The architecture doesn’t help you to understand what’s going on.’

HofmanDujardin's Funeral Ceremony Centre proposal

His solution is a series of three spaces with assembly rooms on either side of a place for the coffin; curved walls characterize this central area. The layout reflects the most important aspects of a funeral: shared remembrance, contemplation and the rekindling of friendships following the loss of a loved one. In HofmanDujardin’s proposal, architecture adds an extra dimension to the experience and attempts to ease the mourners’ sorrow. In moving through the building, they encounter the stages of collectively saying goodbye.

The notion of imbuing such spaces with a sense of direction also appears in the technically demanding architecture of a crematorium. Rotterdam-based Kaan Architecten designed and realized Crematorium Siesegem, a serene structure in Aalst, Belgium, that lies within an undulating landscape of hills, ponds and trees. The austere building’s function is unrecognizable from the outside. Its single entrance ushers visitors into a network of rooms that accommodates up to 12 services a day.

My ambition was to make a building that would guide people in their emotion

Kaan Architecten's Crematorium Siesegem in Aalst

Vincent Panhuysen, who cofounded Kaan Architecten, aimed for a space that could be used by everyone. It contains no imagery or forms of religious affiliation, focusing instead on commemorating the life of the deceased. Velvety surfaces and an abundance of natural light combine in a deeply contemplative environment. The ‘transparent’ operation of the furnaces is complemented by machinery painted pale yellow, a warm hue that envelops a room whose chimney ascends into a void of light.

Although a crematorium facilitates a very private experience, the building in Aalst is a public space. The circulation plan allows for both movement and emotion. ‘In a very natural way, the layout dictates the route that people take within the building,’ said Panhuysen. ‘My ambition was to make a building that would guide people in their emotion.’

Architecture for mourning should provide a place for memories to be recollected and made. Loss is a dynamic occurrence that changes but never fully goes away. HofmanDujardin’s concept building and Kaan’s crematorium not only acknowledge the process of grief but lead the way from stage to stage.

This piece was originally featured in Frame 126. You can purchase a copy of that issue here.

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