The architectural transitions of life and death at Crematorium The Tumulus

In the deserted field of Lithuania, AEXN architects etches Crematorium The Tumulus in the form of a burial mound covered with white linen.

by Sunena V MajuPublished on : Oct 15, 2022

Though architecture has been widely involved in spiritual and religious typologies, the architecture of death-oriented structures is a lesser travelled path. However, recent times have witnessed a growing interest in architects to design crematoriums. “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome,” once said writer Isaac Asimov. The ‘troublesome transition’ is exactly where architecture fits. Designing a space which has empathy and emotions yet not desired. A space that is peaceful and calm yet the most agonizing and painful. Over the past few years, Europe has explored and experimented with crematorium architecture, giving birth to structures that help comprehend the human emotions of loss. A recent example of this emerged in the port city of Klaipėda in Lithuania. Bridging postwar Lithuanian modernism with the design principles of spiritual and sacred spaces, Vilnius-based AEXN Architects created Crematorium The Tumulus.

  • Crematorium The Tumulus rest on a flat field by the forest in Klaipeda, Lithuania | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    Crematorium The Tumulus rests on a flat field by the forest in Klaipeda, Lithuania Image: © Norbert Tukaj
  • The mass concept of the design is a rather sensitive manner representing a shallow hill risen from the surface | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    The mass concept of the design is a rather sensitive manner representing a shallow hill risen from the surface Image: © Norbert Tukaj
  • The crematorium is designed with a metaphor of a burial mound covered with white linen | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    The crematorium is designed with a metaphor of a burial mound covered with white linen Image: © Norbert Tukaj

With the site on a flat surface in a field by the forest, the location of the crematorium itself draws the user to the building, which rests in the middle of a vast area. Responding to the emptiness reflected in the site and the need for the building to not be sculptural, the architects designed a structure that appears to have taken shape from the land. Designed as a metaphor for a burial mound covered with white linen, the building rises as a shallow hill from the surface. The 311 sq.m. crematorium remains visible from a distant perspective too as Crematorium The Tumulus happens to be the only built structure in the context. In contrast to normal typologies where architecture is inviting, in the crematorium, the spaces are meant to be both inviting and have a sense of release. The spaces are comforting and peaceful. While the spaces may initially be consolatory, it also becomes a space that you don’t want to stay longer. That is what architecture does to the users as well, it's welcoming enough to visit but never enough to stay.

  • The volume of the building and its access spaces are separated by embankments of the surrounding landscape | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    The volume of the building and its access spaces are separated by embankments of the surrounding landscape Image: © Norbert Tukaj
  • The crematorium building is visible from a distant perspective and becomes the epicentre of the ritual | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    The crematorium building is visible from a distant perspective and becomes the epicentre of the ritual Image: © Norbert Tukaj

Accessing the building through the embankment of the landscape, one may perceive the space to have taken shape from the earth. Shaping the form of the building is this same sense of function inside the mound. In a circular plan, the spaces are separated into localised shelters forming areas for ritual provisions and other natures. The curved walls with respect to the plan, control the possibility of longer views, and the columns framing the public areas widen the visual connectivity. Though the building functions inside the mound, the design has carved out pocket spaces of courtyards that connect the visitors to the world outside.

  • The common feature of such architecture is spaces dedicated to spiritual and emotional healing | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    The common feature of such architecture is spaces dedicated to spiritual and emotional healing Image: © Norbert Tukaj
  • Interior spaces are designed trying to provide a cosy and comforting atmosphere for the visitor | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    Interior spaces are designed trying to provide a cosy and comforting atmosphere for the visitor Image: © Norbert Tukaj
  • The courtyards are designed and intertwined into the building structure, connecting inside and outside spaces | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    The courtyards are designed and intertwined into the building structure, connecting inside and outside spaces Image: © Norbert Tukaj
  • The concept as a metaphor determined the search for shape and plan structure | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    The concept as a metaphor determined the search for shape and plan structure Image: © Norbert Tukaj

Reminiscent of a ritual blanket, the roof structure covers the architectural volume and tailors it into the surrounding ground. Extending their attention to the concept of cremation and death, the architects have used the materials to impart the same. They mention the use of exposed concrete as the main material is also a metaphor for eternal time. Furthermore, the concrete used in the facade takes the form of “the connotation of modern ruins”.

  • Crematorium The Tumulus: Floor plan | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    Crematorium The Tumulus: Floor plan Image: Courtesy of AEXN
  • Crematorium The Tumulus: Roof plan | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    Crematorium The Tumulus: Roof plan Image: Courtesy of AEXN
  • Crematorium The Tumulus: Elevations representing the relation of the built and the landscape | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    Crematorium The Tumulus: Elevations representing the relation of the built and the landscape Image: Courtesy of AEXN

In Tomas Grunskis’ exploration of creating a space that not only functions as a crematorium but a space that heals, the contemporary studio has put forward a design philosophy that is rather sensitive. “Form of the memory ritual architecture that could create a safe emotional environment for experiencing one of the stages of life is relevant not only in Lithuania. The common feature of such architecture is spaces dedicated to spiritual and emotional healing,” shares the architects in an official release. Building on this concept, the interior design encompasses the materiality of wood and concrete along with the play of light and shadow. While the design reflects the language of modernity and brutalism in the context of spiritual architecture, light plays an integral role. Amid the shades of the grey and brown colour palette, the natural light peeks into the interiors through carefully placed skylights. In a contrasting presence of light, is the glass facade that channels enough light to the immediate corridors of the mound. At the culmination of natural light begins the warm artificial lighting that illuminates the structure from within the mound.

  • The metaphor of eternal time and the connotation of modern ruins is expressed on the facade through the use of concrete | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    The metaphor of eternal time and the connotation of modern ruins is expressed on the facade through the use of concrete Image: © Norbert Tukaj
  • The design aims to be a form of the memory ritual architecture that could create a safe emotional environment for experiencing one of the stages of life | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    The design aims to be a form of the memory ritual architecture that could create a safe emotional environment for experiencing one of the stages of life Image: © Norbert Tukaj

At the intersection of constructing a crematorium that acts as an in-between space within the span of life and death, Crematorium The Tumulus joins the rising practice of cremation in the European continent. “It is a place of emotional discharge and a quiet transformation subordinate to the eternal time and the experience of eternity,” adds the architects. In addition to the crematorium, site development including a columbarium park is in process. Consisting of 16 different indoor premises and several open spaces with different landmarks, artistic accents, and spaces for contemplation, the columbarium park will add to the calmness imparted in the interior spaces. With more and more iterations of crematorium architecture coming up in different parts of the world, the initial phase of this new typology in the making seems to be adopting modern architecture at the forefront. However, the curious inspection would rise when the typology shifts from a general perspective of spirituality to a more contextual and cultural influence. Can crematorium architecture remain a style evoking the depths of life and healing human emotions, or will it be drawn towards the monumentalism of distinctive styles?

  • Crematorium The Tumulus: Physical model depicting the skylights and courtyard cutouts | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    Crematorium The Tumulus: Physical model depicting the skylights and courtyard cutouts Image: Courtesy of AEXN
  • Crematorium The Tumulus: Physical model depicting the front facade amid the mound | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    Crematorium The Tumulus: Physical model depicting the front facade amid the mound Image: Courtesy of AEXN
  • Crematorium The Tumulus: Physical model in scale to understand the built-unbuilt relation | The Tumulus Crematorium | AEXN | STIRworld
    Crematorium The Tumulus: Physical model in scale to understand the built-unbuilt relation Image: Courtesy of AEXN

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