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The fundamentals of death - a review

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An independent exhibition at the 14th Venice Biennale draws attention to the changing shape of death in modernity. Gian Luca Amadei reports

It is reassuring to find independent projects at the Venice Biennale that, well beyond the radar of the official programme, proudly claim their ground and challenge the status quo of architecture with new research.

This is the case in Death in Venice, a small exhibition curated by Rotterdam-based architects Alison Killing and Ania Molenda in collaboration with multidisciplinary graphic design practice LUST.  

The exhibition takes its overarching theme from this year’s Architectural Biennale which focuses on the ‘fundamentals’ of architecture and the theme ‘Absorbing Modernity’. This first outing in Venice, it is part of a larger project, initiated by the curators and titled ‘Death in the City’, consisting of a touring exhibition about death and modern architecture.

Despite its title, the contents of the show are concerned mainly with London and the UK and illustrate how – over the last 100 years – even death has been adapted to suit the modern world. Many aspects are covered, however, one of the core findings is that death in modernity has been medicalised to the point that a high percentage of the population dies in hospitals rather than in their homes. This should not come as a surprise as since the early nineteenth-century, the medical profession in Britain was involved in controlling the spread of diseases by enforcing hygiene and by raising public awareness of health at large. What also emerges is how in the process of becoming modern, death has become more accessible to the poorer classes; perhaps this is something the show could also have highlighted, so to understand how in the course of 100 years that process took place.

Death in the City

The show is a plunge into interactive audio-visual installations, infographics and archive photography that illustrate research on the subject of death; an intense experience that ranges from the pragmatic to the abstract. The large-scale interactive plan of London that greets visitors, for example, highlights the locations of cemeteries, crematoria, hospices and hospitals in the capital and makes one realise how these institutions clustered in the space of the city and formed micro-networks of death. Although effective, it would have been interesting to include another layer of research to do with social make-up and wealth distribution to get a sense of why certain areas are more densely populated than others by these clusters. 

The dense body of research, which is core to this exhibition, is cleverly subdivided into smaller components in the last section of the show, taking the form of individual postcards available for visitors to collect and take away as a memento of their experience. The curators document key themes such as architecture, aesthetics, planning and bureaucracy in relation to death.

Another issue that emerges from this show is how architects and planners respond to the fact that more and more people are dying in hospitals rather than in their homes, showing that the experience of death is being removed from the domestic space into the controlled realm of the hospital. This statement throws open questions not only about death but more broadly on how the modern home is a place where an increasingly limited range of life-related experiences are taking place. This is not dissimilar from what happens in the public space, where society is supervised by CCTV systems in a paternalistic way as individuals who are unable to behave or look after themselves. The same happens with death, its experience is now commodified and handed over to funeral services, mortuaries and others institutions, an approach which has already created a problem of alienation towards death. This exhibition, by reflecting back over the last one hundred years, is also an opportunity to lay out new fundamentals that could inform the way we deal with death in the coming years.


Death in Venice
4-11 June, 2014
Ludoteca Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, Castello 450, Venice
Opening times: 10am – 6pm
Curators: Alison Killing and Ania Molenda with the collaboration of LUST






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