Designs for the Dead: Exploring the Architectural Challenges of Mortality

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

While Woody Allen regards mortality with his typically brilliant humor, it is not a subject that everyone can approach with such dry-witted stoicism. They say the only certainty in life is death, and this harsh truth brings with it perpetual challenges for the human race, both practical and ethical.

For architects, building typologies relating to death bring with them the most complex of design briefs, as they look to reconcile the ethical conundrums of this melancholy genre with practical solutions desperately needed by society at large. As a consequence, history is littered with unconventional approaches to the subject, ranging from the naïve to the innovative, from the bizarre to the deeply profound.

“City of the Dead”: The Metropolitan Sepulchre. Via Oobject

Take, for instance, Victorian architect Thomas Willson’s lavish proposals for a towering vertical cemetery in London: while most would dismiss this as ‘bizarre’ from the outset, Citylab’s Kriston Capps argues that such an outlandish structure makes a whole lot of sense in a city where “there is barely enough room for the living.”

Willson’s Metropolitan Sepulchre would have been a true mega-memorial, a towering 90-story pyramid of catacombs containing the bodies of up to five million Londoners. Had it been constructed, its silhouette would have loomed large on the city’s skyline, topping out at four times the height of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Was this proposal a reflection of the Victorian’s fascination with mortality, inspired by the imperious splendor of Egypt’s monuments and their ritualistic glorification of death?

Willson’s section through the vertical cemetery. Via Citylab

To an extent, perhaps — but the Sepulchre also made sound business sense, with the aptly named Pyramid General Cemetery Company calculating that this eerie edifice would generate an annual profit of £11 million based on sales of family vaults. That is a large sum of money even by today’s standards, but in 1820s London, these bodies were like proverbial gold dust. Ultimately though, the public could not stomach such a monstrous mausoleum; perhaps historian N.B. Penny summed it up best, calling it a “nightmarish combination of megalomaniacal Neo-Classicism and dehumanized Utilitarian efficiency.”

Naturally, Willson’s tower was never realized, but the problem persisted: People kept on dying. London’s overcrowding crisis meant the issue simply escalated, and some kind of infrastructure became critical for the transport of the deceased to their resting place on the outskirts of the city. In 1854, the London Necropolis Railway was established, transforming train carriages into a track-bound parade of hearses that could carry the dead out to a huge cemetery in Brockwood, Surrey. It ran for 87 years, carrying some 200,000 bodies during the lifetime of its operation.

London Necropolis Railway Station. Via Atlas Obscura

The Necropolis Railway attempted to combine the practical necessity of a mobile morgue with a sense of ritual and respect desired by the general public. Its primary station at Waterloo was completed in 1902 and designed by Cyril Bazett Tubbs. In stark contrast to Willson’s Sepulchre, Tubbs’ elegant frontage was an exhibition of Victorian modernity, intended to form an attractive and uplifting entrance, veering away from the gloomy aesthetics conventionally associated with funereal architecture at the time.

Walls of glazed white brick, tree-lined corridors, wrought iron stairways, a richly decorated, oak-paneled chapel: The station’s interior was intended to be as serene and comfortable as possible for mourners … that is, as long as they were first-class passengers. Third-class quarters were sparsely decorated, utilitarian spaces, an extension of the Victorians’ rigid class system into the afterlife.

Fast forward to the present day, and many of these archaic social conventions have, thankfully, fallen by the wayside. The problem of overcrowding remains in certain urban regions around the world, but for some, this has now been superseded by another global concern – conservation of the natural environment.

The Urban Death Project: Section drawing. Via UDP

Seattle-based architect Katrina Spade is one such person. Spade believes it is time we face up to the damaging environmental effects of both burial and cremation rituals: “the former is too toxic and expensive, the latter too carbon-intensive.” She proposes a radical new post-mortem tradition, called the “Urban Death Project”, which dispenses with both burial and cremation as conventional choices, favoring composting instead.

It may conjure up grim imagery for some — row upon row of human bodies, separated by a few layers of wood chips, straw and other organic material — but, Spade argues, this is only because of our misplaced desire to cling onto individuality after we die. In fact, she says, we should look to transition to a collective solution, where we can take joy from the knowledge that our bodies become part of a sustainable energy transformation: It’s the Lion King’s ‘Circle of Life’ made real.

The Urban Death Project: Section drawing. Via UDP

Spade has even gone as far as to design a hypothetical structure for such a composting facility, a concrete cube with huge panels of glazing, with a weathered steel ramp up which bodies are carried to their final destination. It is a serene, contemporary building that possesses a contemplative atmosphere, more akin to an art gallery than a crematorium or morgue.

The architect has carried out a long and intense period of research on the subject, accumulating compelling evidence to suggest that the Urban Death Project is not only preferable to conventional ways of dealing with our mortality, it is also infinitely feasible — if we all pull in the same direction. It’s an extraordinary challenge, but Spade is resolute in her mission.

“I don’t want my last gesture as a human being, as I die, to be a big ‘fuck you’ to the earth,” she says.

The Urban Death Project: exterior. Via UDP

Some architects live for green, environmentally sound projects — now, one pioneering designer is determined to take this healthy attitude well beyond the grave. Kudos, Katrina Spade.

© Ed White Photographics

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