by Jerry ElengicalFeb 03, 2023
Contemporary architectural experimentation has transformed a number of building and spatial typologies with seemingly little room for innovation, into environments that have an immersive message and narrative of their own. Design exercises that were once thought to be rudimentary processes in spatial organisation, are now being viewed from entirely different vantage points by practitioners who are striving to change the status quo and break the mould of earlier conventions. Chief among them is perhaps the typology of a cemetery, a place of final repose for the departed, where there once appeared to be a very limited capacity for design. However, recent endeavours such as the Gallery of the Saints by BENT Architecture in Melbourne, Australia, have proved that this is not the case, weaving nature, light, and life into these spaces to impart them with a wholly new identity. In the south of France, the city of Montpellier has become home to a similar exploration, albeit on a much larger scale, in the form of the Montpellier Metropolitan Cemetery by local practice Agence Traverses - Paysage, Urbanisme, Architecture.
Even though the notion of designing a cemetery as an open public space through the incorporation of landscape architecture is not necessarily new of its own accord, the French architecture firm’s intervention was guided by a host of other factors which rooted the project in its surroundings. First off, the project was envisioned as a public park rather than solely as a burial ground, whose layout and infrastructure would incite rumination on the relationships between primordial states and entities. In this vein, the tectonic landscape of the cemetery explores the bonds between life and death, nature and the cosmos, as well as the sky and the earth — all framed through the lens of the collective human experience. This intervention is but the first phases of a much larger endeavour, which will transform adjacent plots in the years to come.
Polyvalency was paramount to the design's conceptualisation, and this is reflected in the way the site parameters have defined the layout of structures. Aside from its primary objective, the cemetery also acts as a piece of infrastructure devised for the purpose of water retention for the surrounding area. The natural topography of the site was a significant driving force in tailoring the complex for this very reason, guiding the placement, scale, and orientation of the béton brut forms which frame the flow of space through the site. Particular attention was given to the behaviour of water and the potential trajectories of its flow inside the development’s confines, which helped narrow down the plan that would most effectively assist in fulfilling this function.
There is a severity to the appearance of the complex’s monomateriality, expressed entirely in concrete architecture whose texture and colour blends into the very landscape it occupies. Since this was a conscious decision to eliminate any distinction between architectural form and context, the project is then composed of a sequence of interlocked spaces, embedded into their terrain, earnestly aspiring to embody the tenets of organic architecture. Diverse routes through the development exhibit variations in scale, enclosure, and form, through a series of pathways, infrastructural elements, tombs, and meditative spaces.
Despite possessing little by way of a front façade design, the complex’s entrance and concierge space are among the few traditional buildings within its boundary, featuring open courts and sit out areas with views of the park. Geometric design is a prominent influence on the architectural vocabulary on show here, with weighty built forms that radiate a naturalistic grandeur, appearing like archaic extensions of the terrain. Striations along the exposed concrete surfaces aid in softening the drastic changes in scale throughout the complex, providing a sense of regularity, with textures that resemble geological strata.
Furthermore, the slope of the land has also been adhered to in certain respects, with terraced platforms bridged by grand stairways of an almost monumental scale. The oversized treads in these areas are almost on par with those of a small amphitheatre, and could act as spots for visitors to sit and take in views of the entire development. A variety of routes are available through the cemetery, generating a different collection of vistas on each visit. The alterations in scale and enclosure produce a harmonious merger of architecture and landscape, where one feeds the other in a fashion that serves to elevate both.
Shifting ground planes subvert any notion of regularity, as the terraced organisation ushers visitors deeper into the belly of the earth, then brings them back up to the surface to bask in fresh daylight. It is through these transitions, at times subtle, and occasionally radical, that the contextual design really makes its mark, constantly inviting exploration, fuelling curiosity, and engendering a reflective mindset, which supplants the standard image of a cemetery, creating a fresh typology that has a distinct flavour and soul of its own.
Name: Montpellier Metropolitan Cemetery
Location: Montpellier, France
Architect: Agence Traverses - Paysage, Urbanisme, Architecture
Landscape Architect: Agence Traverses - Paysage, Urbanisme, Architecture
Roads, Networks, and Schedule Engineers: PRESENTS
Structural Engineers (Buildings): CALDER
Civil Engineering (Retaining Walls and Gateways): SEDOA
Hydraulics Engineering: CEREG
Networks Engineers: 2M Energies
Schedule Engineers: MCG
Building Economy: ACEEC