by Dilpreet BhullarMar 09, 2021
A visit to a cemetery is often marked heavy with intense emotions, of loss, grief, and sacramental remembrance. Everyone’s experience is different – for some it’s a one-time visit, for others an annual ritual to honour their loved ones lost to time. The space feels cold, deserted, still and peaceful for some, foreboding for most, and often conveying a community’s religious beliefs via symbols and imagery.
A symbolic 13-meter tower rises from one end of the South Haven Centre for Remembrance, a new non-denominational landmark for the city of Edmonton in Canada. The single-storey structure lays embedded as a dark stroke within a snow-capped municipal cemetery spread across 21 hectares, its façades wrapped in deep charcoal black timber, and glass windows that relieve its clinical geometry. Designed by Vancouver-based Shape Architecture, the form emerges from the prairie landscape, referencing the existing graves surrounding it, the monuments, columbaria and “the latent memory that they embody,” says Dwayne Smyth, Partner, Shape Architecture.
Smyth shares that the building’s angular and restrained form and placement was conceived as a “wandering line in the landscape”. The unique nature of the building typology is made even more interesting with the tower, its architecture advocating a non-religious sentiment, owing to its location in the non-denominational cemetery. “Given the project brief mandated that the new facility was non-denominational, the design needed to be redolent without being literal,” he observes.
Light, shadow and time become pointers for designing the outer skin and form, and how the places are planned inside. Apart from an architectural element that brings in the sun, the tower stands as a marker in the landscape as a reference point, like how bell towers and church spires became landmarks for direction and time, its form referencing that of an upright tombstone.
“After the loss of my grandmother, who was an Edmonton native, I was compelled by the idea of creating meaning through light, space and time. I think the tower will invariably evoke different meanings to everyone and that is the intent. For myself, it has a deeply personal point of reference, which is the summer solstice,” shares Smyth.
The South Haven Centre for Remembrance includes a reception lobby, vestibule, meeting and family rooms, office and storage spaces, kitchen, washroom, a shop and a small garage in its 650 sqm design. It also ties in a public design programme in its spatial design, which welcomes the people visiting the cemetery, providing areas of silence, reflection and pause. The public and staff spaces are kept at either ends of the centre, separated by the reception and lobby that have full height windows looking out to the cemetery. The garage and service spaces sit toward the back, hidden from view via a low wall.
“The more I visited the site, the more I realised that for many people their visit to the South Haven Cemetery may be a singular event, and for some it may become a ritual that may span the rest of their lives. The weather, the light and the natural environment play a huge role in that experience. The building aspires to spatially capture and memorialise moments in time,” mentions Smyth.
The initial design brief called for a public house front which would sit in definite contrast to its back, which would contain service areas, and could be planned out of sight. Conventional cemetery designs often separate the two. An early design decision was made to combine them, resulting in the depressed works yard which allowed the back to be partially submerged, along with giving the building an opportunity to extend into the landscape.
The design process also focused on both the ephemeral and permanent aspects of ‘burial, ritual and remembrance’. The resulting form and internal layout are in some way attempts to pay homage to them. “This type of project requires deep understanding, sensitivity and layers of thought to ensure that the final design addresses the entire cross section of society,” adds Smyth.
Shape Architecture shares that the materials chosen for the centre of remembrance were chosen to create a timeless, austere setting. The dark outer façade is clad in Shou Sugi ban timber making it resilient and waterproof, along with hot rolled steel panels which give high contrast during winters. In summer, the structure’s skin corresponds to the granite tombstones which surround it.
The interior design reveals a warmer, softer contrast to its dusky exterior, with its Baltic birch walls, white painted ceilings and light honed limestone floors. Smyth also designed a custom light fixture, the ‘Spirit Light’, a solid cast glass ellipsoid containing a spherical void at its centre. Becoming the focal element within the public areas of the design, the fixture blends with the entire space with intent.
Ruminating on his design philosophy and inspirations, Smyth says, “I have long been fascinated with sculpture and land art. My work with Will Bruder on a James Turrell Skyspace in Arizona exposed me to the profound connection that the built-form can have with ourselves, the environment and the greater universe, which is reliant on our perception. Understanding our relationship with the earth and the immediate landscape is sometimes forgotten in current design culture, which at times has become the pursuit of fashion. I believe that in a world which is moving towards an increasing sense of immediacy, architecture can remain firmly anchored in the present and aspire to endure time.”
The South Haven Centre for Remembrance was recently awarded the Governor General’s Medal in Architecture for 2020.