The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
In Sweden, the first day of a long, dark winter is marked by the celebration of All Saints’ Day in late October or early November. Shortly before dusk, most Swedes meet with their families and travel to their local cemetery where flowers are laid and candles are lit in remembrance of the dead.
In a suburb south of Stockholm city centre, Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery sits between a motorway and a railway line like a vestige of a imagined past; fragments of the Classical world sit alongside great earthenmounds reminiscent of pre-historic Norse burial tumuli, dense pine forest opens into clearings into which playful ‘temples’ have been carefully placed, and art establishes a representational context for the rituals that occur in this most emotive of places.
At Asplund’s Woodland Chapel (1918-20), the profound meaning of the architectural setting and the symbolic representation within it is revealed only through praxis, or use. The creation of a clearing in the woods, bounded by a low wall, establishes what is effectively a temenos into which the funerary chapel and ancillary structures, are placed. This newly-established sacred precinct is entered through the small, concrete lychgateesque structure, sufficiently narrow to force people pass beneath it in single file. Gravel from the path beyond has been strewn about underneath it by the passage of countless feet before, and so, when you walk through, the sound of your footsteps is amplified tenfold.
Although they are physically separated in space, the functional relationship between the lychgate and the chapel beyond is reinforced by a cohesive sculptural programme; on the front elevation of the lychgate there is a carved plaque showing a Classical temple and a tree with the accompanying Latin memento mori ‘Hodie Mihi Gras Tibi’ (‘It is my lot today, yours tomorrow’), and when you have crossed this first threshold and walked some way down the forest path, its gilded twin, Carl Milles’ ‘The Angel of Death’, appears, suspended above the portico of the chapel itself. As you leave the path and pass beneath the angel to enter the deep narthex of the chapel, you are moving from a forest of trees into a forest of white-painted timber columns.
Nature here becomes architecture, the columns reminiscent both of the human body and of the forest from whence they came. The soffit of the low wooden roof is painted with a glossy white paint; when candles are lit at the base of the surrounding trees, as they are on this night of remembrance, their flickering light is reflected in this artificial sky, mimicking the appearance of constellations of stars. This is a space for gathering, where mourners are comforted by their families and friends, and the architecture provides the setting for this most human - and humane - of rituals. The narthex is both large and intimate enough to invite pause, the twelve columns dividing it into nine bays where smaller groups coalesce on the granite flags, sheltered from rain or snow. It is a liminal space; not sacred proper, but not entirely of the forest either.
Passing through a pair of filigrante wrought iron gates, replete with the familiar language of mortality in the Christian tradition such as the skull, the lamb of God and the flowering urn, you enter the chapel. Here, the form of a circle is inscribed into the otherwise rectilinear plan by a ring of timber columns - painted so as to appear fluted - roofed by a dome which admits natural light from above. The catafalque onto which the coffin is placed during a funeral service is located at the east - adjacent to the altar - and is flanked by simple wooden chairs which, on this particular evening, are filled with people lost in remembrance and prayer. The mourners face each other across the room, a reminder of the collective world beyond the all-consuming solitude of grief, and a comfort in the hour of deepest need.
Within the temenos established by Aspund, we find an ensemble of small buildings and structures in conversation with the chapel. To the north, the bounding wall rises up to enclose a small stone mortuary with a turf roof. The building is sunken into the ground, presumably so that the thermal mass of the earth can be harnessed to create a stable, cool atmosphere conducive to the storage of bodies within. On the opposite end of the same north-south axis sits a small concrete aedicule with a simple metal pitched roof. On a raised plinth to the front lit candles sit, throwing staccato bursts of light up onto a carved roundel depicting the head of a lion, its mouth stained red.
The cemetery as a whole brings together notions of landscape that allude both to the Germanic and Swedish conceptions of nature - a dark pine forest, punctuated by small clearings - as well as to the universally recognisable and deeply familiar traditions of the Classical world which situate the ritualised function of the cemetery within a tangible, and comforting, setting of human finitude. Here, it is now as it always has been, and shall be forever more.