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“The Essence of a Cemetery Landscape”

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:26 AM
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by vaMODERN last modified Nov 15, 2011

Originally written for American Cemetery Magazine by Ron Wolfe, AIA in December, 2006 while with SMBW Architects in Richmond, Virginia. The original article has been republished here with written permission of the publisher, Kates-Boylston. A serendipitous meeting in 1847 by two men from Richmond, Va., led to one of the most important civic landscapes in that [...]



Belvedere Gardens in Salem, Va., completed in 2004 by SMBW Architects follows contemporary European examples of cemetery design.

Originally written for American Cemetery Magazine by Ron Wolfe, AIA in December, 2006 while with SMBW Architects in Richmond, Virginia. The original article has been republished here with written permission of the publisher, Kates-Boylston.

A serendipitous meeting in 1847 by two men from Richmond, Va., led to one of the most important civic landscapes in that city’s history. Upon realizing they were both in Boston, Joshua Jefferson Fry and William Henry Haxall chose to visit Mount Auburn cemetery. Dedicated only 16 years prior, the cemetery was a very popular escape from the bustling city. They were so inspired by the beauty and solemnity of this first American cemetery in the “rural” aesthetic, that they quickly began planning a similar project for Richmond, whose cemeteries suffered from severe overcrowding.

By 1850, Hollywood Cemetery was opened and joined the ranks of numerous American cemeteries that followed Mount Auburn’s lead, including Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, Pa., Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Green Mount in Baltimore, Md. Through the mid-19th century, Hollywood Cemetery became very popular with the citizens of Richmond, with its fame permanently established after President James Monroe was reinterred there in 1858.

What has attracted Richmonders and other visitors to Hollywood Cemetery left throughout its history, though, is the fundamental premise that it is a place for the living and not simply the dead. This is achieved through the magnificent site along the James River; the picturesque, almost romantic, winding lanes flanked by tall trees and rolling hills; and the absolute conviction that this is a space to both honor the past and heal the present and future.

In his seminal book, “Lost Landscapes,” Ken Worpole wrote: “We make these places to assuage our fears and apprehensions, to calm and ameliorate our sense of loss and grief.” The design of the cemetery landscape should inherently allow us to move forward with our lives. Hollywood, Mount Auburn and others within this rural cemetery framework provided, and still provide today, solace and healing – a landscape that “tempers the loss and hopelessness felt at such times,” according to Worpole. Unfortunately, the contemporary American cemetery landscape has lost its way. The banality that has followed, primarily within the lawn cemetery style, provides very little articulation of a cemetery’s true purpose, no understanding of the passage of time and a universal placelessness. Therefore, there is little provision of emotional support for those grieving. A current lack of sacredness, which had historically created the emotional qualities of the cemetery, burying ground or graveyard, is now at risk of rejection by the generation on the cusp of retirement.

The size of the baby boomer generation is staggering: An estimated 76 million Americans were born between the years of 1946 and 1964. They are the most educated and driven generation this country has seen to date, and while the prospect of retirement is daunting to them, so is the prospect of their own mortality. The death rate is predicted to expand from 2.4 million a year to 3.2 million in the near term and 4.1 million by 2040.

These predictions provide an interesting paradox to cemeterians: They may struggle to keep up with this increasing pace, yet they also may struggle to attract business due to the boomers’ continued defiance of the status quo. As has been written frequently, the baby boomers are more self-aware than any other previous generation and have trended away from geographic familial ties. Boomers, specifically, and Americans, generally, want to find a way to express in their death, the vitality of their life. Therefore, there is a deep need to establish a rationale for both their burial rite and its location.

Looking back again at a historical model, Père Lachaise left is the largest cemetery within the boundary of Paris and one of the most famous in the world. But its beginning was far less auspicious. Founded in 1804 by Napoleon after the prohibition of new cemeteries within the city center, many Parisians thought Père Lachaise to be too far from the heart of Paris and chose to be buried elsewhere. Only when the remains of La Fontaine and Molière, in addition to Abèlard and Hèloïse, were moved to this site was it suitably attractive to its enlightened citizens. The number interred quickly rose exponentially. Through its popularity, Père Lachaise became the first cemetery in modern history to become a vital component of a city’s cultural inventory.

The market-based connection between what occurred in Paris and in Richmond is obvious, but without the ability to re-inter the famous, how can the modern American cemetery transform itself to acknowledge its past, articulate the promise of the future and remain relevant in modern civic society? The simple answer is through thoughtful and evocative design, which is honest about site, material, and programmatic use of the space. This requires humility, sensitivity to the psychology of grief and a profound sense of place to be successful.

At its most base level, architecture expresses a sacred connection between humanity and nature. The 20th century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” wrote in his first line of the work that, “We attain to dwelling, so it seems, only by means of building.” It can be extrapolated that even though the cemetery is not truly for “dwelling,” “[this … is] in the domain of our dwelling.” These spaces are inherently endowed with a sacred purpose, due to our intention of building.

Once the act of building is seen as essentially sacred, we must then look to a process that allows for the systematic, and sometimes more overt, expression of this notion. Critical Regionalism, as proposed by Kenneth Frampton in his essay, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” attempts to provide a path to both look back and look forward, thus resolving this dilemma. This architectural approach strives to inscribe the history of a specific regional culture, through its geologic and agricultural histories, into a building.

“This inscription, which arises out of ‘in-laying’ the building into the site, has many levels of significance, for it has the capacity to embody, in built form, the prehistory of the place, its archaeological past and its subsequent cultivation and transformation across time.” That would, essentially, create a fundamental sense of place inasmuch as the built form arises from and articulates the essence of the site. This principal is essential to reconnecting the cemetery with the sacred.

On the outskirts of Stockholm in the early 20th century, Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz designed the most important cemetery landscape of the Modern era: Woodland Cemetery. Through the design, which ran counter to the prevailing philosophical modern trend of the time, they “sought to imbue the site with a sacred quality by using landscape as the essential point of departure for their architectural solution,” according to Caroline Constant in her book on the project, “The Woodland Cemetery: Toward a Spiritual Landscape.”

Asplund and Lewerentz turned away from historical precedent and instead, “relied primarily on enhancing attributes of the landscape – ridge and valley, earth and sky, forest and clearing, meadow and marsh – to evoke associations of death and rebirth in a landscape of spiritual dimension.” Woodland Cemetery became the first Modern typological example of the inseparable intertwining of nature with humanity and the essential sacredness this implied. In this case, though, the individual memorial was primarily set aside in lieu of the communal within the context of an overwhelming presence of the forest and gentle topography.

Here we see the groundwork being laid for the philosophical underpinnings of critical regionalism, many years prior to the Postmodern era. Yet, it was intuitive to Asplund and Lewerentz that, through magnifying the essence of place, the awareness of place could be heightened, and the site could engage both public and private memory.

One final typological example is Belvedere Gardens in Salem, Va., completed in 2004 (above). This project follows other contemporary European examples of cemetery design such as Fisterra Cemetery and Igualada Cemetery in Spain; and Srebrnice Cemetery in Slovenia. Formally, each is quite different, but all pass through the realm of the profane into that of the sacred. And each relies heavily on the cemetery as an extension of landscape to achieve this end.

Salem, Va., lies in the Shenandoah Valley between the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1928, Sherwood Memorial Park was founded and later expanded in the 1950s with a mausoleum. By the late 1990s, it was evident that another expansion was necessary to continue to serve the citizens of Salem. The architectural solution was to gently embed the project into the site, heighten awareness of the local and distant landscape and formally express the project’s use without overbearing nostalgia.

Overall, the mausoleum is composed of three gardens with each precinct separated from the other through transitional spaces as a way to keep the outside world from the sacred space within. In addition, these transitional spaces allow for compression of space which, during later moments when the landscape opens back up to the sky and mountains, encourages a new awareness of the local and extended site.

Materials used at Belvedere Gardens provide various visual, tactile and aural qualities that reinforce the experiential nature of the space. Curvilinear concrete mausoleum roofs inset with turf act as a metaphor for the mountains beyond, yet have a pragmatic rationale for mitigating topography.

Two types of stone are used on vertical surfaces: A rough field stone and a milled stone. The field stone pattern indicates boundary in the form of site and retaining walls, while the more refined milled stone wraps the crypt walls to provide a higher quality presentation for the deceased.

Water is used as a device to both add sound to the experience and to act as a literal and metaphorical threshold from the Sunken Garden, the most sacred part of the site, to the elevated grove. The ground plane is covered by hard and soft materials to provoke sounds that heighten the sense of self and thus the perception of life. Each of these moments allows for numerous ways to “create a meaningful ritual, architecture and landscape for the disposal of the dead,” in the words of Worpole.

But this project has also proven to be powerful outside of its essence as a cemetery landscape. Belvedere Gardens has truly become an addition to the cultural landscape of Southwest Virginia – one where people visit simply to be in a quiet and meditative space in which land and building are in harmony. This civic appeal leads one directly to remember the nature of Mount Auburn, Hollywood and other cemetery landscapes that are truly spaces for the living, places where people actually want to be. The result is a return to cemeteries as the keepers of our cultural heritage. This strategy will also help resolve the question regarding how to address the needs of the baby boomer generation in search of a landscape that articulates their vitality in life. Heidegger noted that death “is the shrine of nothingness and, at the same time, the shelter of being.”

Death is something we are all destined to realize, yet we need to provide this with an appropriate design solution. Humble and poetic cemetery landscapes will fill this need. The time has come to design the new American cemetery with this in mind.

Belvedere Gardens Images are by photographerJames West for the architect and were used in the original magazine article.

Père Lachaise image from Original Article. Hollywood Cemetery image from website.




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