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The architecture of death

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Always big Loosians, FAT, now dead itself, explores the idea that it is in only in death that architecture truly finds itself

As Adolf Loos wrote: ‘Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.’ And to that extent one could chart a history of the art of architecture as a history of the design of death. Perhaps it is in the tombs, monuments, graves, urns, crematoria, tributes, coffins and other funeralia we find the real record of life as represented by architecture. To that end we present here an essay in pictures charting the ways in which the design of death acts as the ultimate life-affirming power of architecture.

The Pyramids


Death and technology are strange but frequent bedfellows. Think even of the pyramids as the expression of an extreme limit of knowledge and science, a combination of immense structural gesture, astronomy, occult knowledge and the political subjugation of the slaves necessary to built them. But this Ballardian cocktail of death and technology recurs. It is there in the London Necropolis Railway, opened in 1854 using the then recently developed technology of the railway to move as many burials as possible to the newly built Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey as a solution to overcrowding in London’s existing graveyards and cemeteries. It’s there too in the morbid autopia of American drive-through crematoria; in the process of compressing and super-heating that can convert your loved one’s cremated ashes into a man-made diamond; and in the ashes of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, which have been launched into Earth orbit for so-called ‘space burial’. As technology opens up new ways of occupying the world, it is no surprise that we begin to colonise these new forms of space with that most ancient of human marks – the grave.

Neolithic burial mound


The burial mound was the central feature of A Clockwork Jerusalem, the FAT-curated exhibition in the British Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale.  The mound was a reference both to the most ancient of British man-made landscapes, neolithic burial mounds, but also to the mounds of modernity: the piling-up of the rubble of the demolished slum to form the centrepiece of the Boundary Estate, the first example of social housing (depending on your definition), or the giant mound at the heart of Robin Hood Gardens, a place more famous for its ever-impending demolition than it ever was as a living piece of architecture. All of these mounds are concerned in one way with death – of a person, a dynasty, a community or, literally, of architecture itself. But simultaneously they suggest an afterlife of the spirit, or of slum resurrected as public park. Death acts as a way of providing a new form of life. Part of the thrill of the Clockwork Jerusalem mound was to place such an un-architectural thing as a pile of earth at the heart of an exhibition about architecture.

Mausoleum for Max Dvorák, Adolf Loos


Loos designed two tombs, one for himself – and one for art historian Max Dvorák. Each was a pure expression of his formal preoccupations: the cube and the ziggurat. Unencumbered by the contingencies of everyday life, each could remain perfect and complete. Loos’s houses, on the other hand, deliberately deconstructed each type, often fusing them together so that cubic forms became partially eaten away, or stepped down in terraces like partial ziggurats. Loos’s most famous and final house, the Villa Müller in Prague, was his most perfect – if that’s the right word – expression of this compromise, the conflict between domesticity and architecture raised to a perversely sublime level. After being hit hard by the contingencies of life, having been requisitioned first by the Nazis, then by the Soviets after the Prague Spring, the house was bought by the state, restored and is now maintained as a museum. Even more than his own grave, the house has become a mausoleum. It underwent a form of death and in doing so returned to the realm of art.

Necropolis, Glasgow

Necropolis, Glasgow

‘Glasgow,’ says Billy Connolly, referring to the city’s grand Necropolis, ‘is a bit like Nashville: it doesn’t care much for the living, but it really looks after the dead.’ Its towering hill is dotted with graves, monuments and mausoleums so that it appears like a city of the dead. Rising above the city, though, it configures death as part of the city, rather than separate from it. More often than we might notice, cities themselves – cities of the living, that is – are organised around an infrastructure more associated with death. Think of the grand set-piece urban choreography that links Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and The Mall. Here the twin axes of crown and state intersect, decorated with a crowd of effigies and memorials to the dead. Perhaps it’s only at grand state occasions that the depth of this deep symbolism embedded in the urban fabric is resurrected. When, for example, a prince salutes these multiple imperial ghosts during his wedding parade. What this might remind us of is the supernatural and symbolic content of the material fabric of the city that remains a powerful force, shaping even the most mundane of issues – the arrangement of a bus route or the signage of a coffee shop. The city, in other words, is not only a place for the living. ‘In the midst of life,’ as Morrissey once wailed, ‘we are in death … etcetera.’.

Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone

Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone

Many artists and architects have designed their own tombs. Frank Lloyd  Wright’s was a menhir-like boulder, Corb’s a small, primary-coloured tablet and Mies’s a flat granite slab. British pop artist Patrick Caulfield’s has the last, dark laugh, though. Caulfield died in 2005 and is buried in Highgate’s East Cemetery. His self-designed grave has a vertical flat slab of grey stone into which are punched the letters D E A D in a minimalist, impersonal font. Each letter forms a notch, so that the slab also suggests a set of steps. Caulfield’s work depended on a deadpan depiction of everyday life, a deceptive literalism where the absolute precision of observation, line and colour began to communicate an intense emotional familiarity. His grave draws on similar themes: mordant black humour, spare elegance and the pathos of recognition. Along with the gravestone designed for  Tony Wilson by Peter Saville, does Caulfield’s Pop-Art monumental masonry point, as the baby boomers start to die off, to a new approach to the design of death?

The Princess Diana Memorial Bridge

FAT's entry for the Princess Diana Memorial Bridge

Back in 1996 there was a competition to design a new pedestrian bridge across the Thames between Tate Modern and St Paul’s. FAT’s entry proposed a bridge imagined as a piece of park, planted with grass, trees and flowers (sound familiar?) A year later, after the death of Princess Diana and the huge tributes that carpeted large chunks of London with flowers and totems of grief, we re-christened the bridge The Princess Diana Memorial Bridge. Now it became a strip of Althorpe Park, the Spencer family seat, dug up and strung across the Thames. Along the side of a determinedly simple structure were carved the lyrics to Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997, (Goodbye England’s Rose, etc).  The bridge merged cloying public sentimentalism with the prevailing pseudo-scientific objectivity of millennial bridge design.  The proposal suggested infrastructure as a cultural and critical act, as a form of narrative, as a surreal juxtaposition of landscapes – a new post-sampling take on the idea of the rus in urbe that is so deeply engrained in the British conception of the city. This new popular media-saturated kind of death and the act of sentimental memory, we argued, could be engineered into the fabric of the city.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal

When we design for death, what we’re really designing is an idealised form of life. Take the Taj Mahal, a building that is essentially a gigantic love letter written in intricately inscribed marble: 20,000 artisans put to work to celebrate the love of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his deceased bride Mumtaz Mahal at a cost, in today’s terms, of £530 million. That’s a whole lotta love, turned into architectural form, in anyone’s book.Love and death are not subjects we usually associate with architecture, where vanity, greed and power are more often thought of as the motivating forces. Yet perhaps they are always there, on a hidden Excel sheet in the cost plan. A House For Essex is, as we well understand, an unusual project. Unusual partly because it’s explicitly about death. Grayson’s poem about the deceased fictional Julie tells us her husband ‘… kissed her and said that if she died before him, he would weep as hard as Shah Jahan and build a Taj Mahal upon the Stour’. And that’s what the building is: a monument to the death of an imaginary character – but also to the possibilities of architecture to tell us stories about things like love and death.

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