Death: A design response

Nothing is certain except death and taxes, said Benjamin Franklin. While global corporations have been getting creative with the latter, let’s celebrate the global design community’s achievements in finding new and interesting ways to engage with the former, says Veronica Simpson

Are we Brits going through some kind of existential crisis? Whatever cultural, social or emotional currents are prevailing right now, our preoccupation with our own mortality has reached new heights. 2012 was a year that kicked off with one four-day event, Death: A Festival for the Living, at the Southbank, and ended with a veritable explosion of exhibitions exploring death imagery, artefacts and our relationship with the grim reaper.

First the ICA displayed a graphic and disturbing collaboration between Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard and architecture practice Snøhetta, with A House to Die In. Then the Wellcome Institute revealed four centuries-worth of weird, wonderful or macabre prints, paintings and exhibits in Death: A Self-Portrait. December saw the Royal Academy celebrate Japanese artist Mariko Mori's otherworldly meditations on human existence and the afterlife, in a show titled Rebirth; the Museum of London launched its Resurrection Men exhibition (until 14 April) and the Scottish National Gallery weighed in with Death to Death And Other Small Tales, (until 8 September), showcasing the morbid imaginings of some of the world's leading artists.

Ever ahead of the curve, the design community has already been delving into this meaty and provocative topic to reinvent and reframe it for modern audiences, from the coffin makeover by Jacob Jensen to the designs of Thomas Heatherwick for a Zoroastrian temple in India - creating sacrificial platforms set in the suburban woodland of Mumbai, where vultures can feast on the deceased's remains.

With almost missionary humanist zeal, a cluster of other architects and designers have recently seized the opportunity to create new spaces and objects with which we can either commemorate or bid farewell to our loved ones, freed from much of the increasingly inappropriate religious iconography that has, for the past 2,000 years or more, dictated the aesthetics around death experiences.

Some would say re-examination is long overdue: there has been little major revision of the death aesthetic since Queen Victoria's prolonged and public grief over the death of her husband Prince Albert rebooted interest in all things gothic.

For architecture PhD student and self-confessed cemetery afficionado, Gian Luca Amadei, there are still parallels between the Victorians and our current-day preoccupations. For the Victorians, he says, obsession with death was a form of status display - flamboyant memorials, haute-couture widow's weeds, plumed horses, not to forget the birth of the elaborate and immense cemeteries we now take for granted. He says: 'The cemetery became the mirror of the city, and social status was as visible in the cemetery as it was in the city.'

What are our status symbols now? Growing environmental concerns mean it's far more fashionable to be buried in a wicker basket or a cardboard box under a tree than pay a small fortune for a marble tomb. There are currently more brownie points in eco-humility than in bling, Amadei suggests: 'It's about completely erasing the idea of monuments - about society wanting to actually disappear and merge with nature.'

This is certainly true of the architectural spaces being designed to help us come to terms with our ephemeral existence. Simple forms, daylighting, views on to nature as well as a restrained palette of humble materials (concrete, glass, steel) have replaced the Victorian and pre-Victorian lust for ornate carvings, stained glass and gold-leaf icons representing portals to the gilded hereafter. This aesthetic is writ large in Belgian architecture practice Govaert & Vanhoutte's Tyne Cot Cemetery pavilion, Hofrichter-Ritter's Chapel of Rest in Austria, as well as Henning Larsen's restrained but elegant Danish hospice.

What is also new is the skill with which the new wave of death-related objects and spaces address and support the delicate emotional state of the people who will encounter them. There can be few more sensitive commissions than the creation of buildings that commemorate traumatic events still fresh in living memory, negotiating all the attendant political and socio-cultural baggage. New York's 9/11 Memorial Museum is a case in point - now finally back on schedule after a prolonged battle over funding between New York's mayor and its Port Authority. American architecture practice Davis Brody Bond was keenly aware of public sensitivities in designing this museum. Architect and principal Steven Davis witnessed the Twin Towers attack from his Manhattan apartment. His firm has also been closely involved with the World Trade Center site, from its original masterplanning right through to the overseeing of designer Michael Arad's memorial itself - two massive waterfall voids in the footprint of the original towers.

For the museum, careful attention has been paid to the visitor's emotional journey, providing options and pauses between each stage, says Davis. 'You cross a threshold between the everyday, ongoing bustling city of Manhattan and enter the memorial - and that's one emotional transition. The [Snøhetta-designed) pavilion is another threshold. Then you have another decision to make, which is to visit the museum, which is below ground, so the impact is magnified again.'

There's an introductory orientation zone in the pavilion, with an overview of the museum's layout and contents. Says Davis: 'You have a sense of progressive disclosure as you move through the complex. The revelation of the sequences of spaces is intentional. The "slurry wall" - one of few original building elements that survived the attack - is presented in a fairly direct way and when you see it you know exactly what you are looking at. Then we have presented views of the towers as they were long ago. I used to love to stand at the plaza and stare straight up at the corners of the two towers and enjoy that parallax. So we have presented that moment again and again in different views.

'We have also integrated the "survivor stair". One of the last decisions that the visitor will make is whether they actually want to go down to bedrock, because that's essentially the graveyard, the cemetery. We give options for exit. Then when you leave, the escalator that takes you from bedrock directly to the surface will be enclosed. We don't want the emotional condition of people who have had the full experience to affect those who are beginning their journey. And then you re-emerge. You are back in the entry hall of the Snøhetta Pavilion.'

Just as much - if not more - consideration of the user's mental sensitivities went into the design of a personal legacy object by Thai architect Charinee Artachinda (see case study, right). As an MA student at Central Saint Martins in Creative Practice for Narrative Environments, Artachinda brought an outsider's cultural curiosity and freshness of perspective in comparing Thai attitudes to death with British ones; where Thais celebrate the deceased's life with a funeral pyre and a festival lasting weeks, Brits are strong on short, sombre ceremonies endured with stiff upper lip followed by lashings of alcohol.

Artachinda conducted extensive research, with the help of a psychologist, among cancer patients and also with participants at last year's aforementioned Southbank event, Death: a Festival for the Living. She says: 'Talking to them a lot gave me many ideas. When they were talking about someone else's death, it made them cry. When they talked about their own death, they were much happier, they did it with humour.' Apparently, talking and thinking about death is good for us. Artachinda says: 'I've had feedback on my project from doctors who are dealing with death. They really like it; it's about acceptance.'

This view is backed up by an April 2012 report from Science Daily that declared: 'An awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help us reprioritise our goals and values, according to a new analysis of recent scientific studies. Even non-conscious thinking about death - say, walking by a cemetery - could prompt positive changes and promote helping others.'

Kate Forde, curator at the Wellcome Institute, who put together the Death: A Self-portrait exhibition with collector Richard Harris, says: 'Death and rituals around death have almost become taboo. They take place off-stage in modern secular culture. It's as if we have lost our vocabulary for talking about death. Death is medicalised. It happens in hospitals and doesn't often happen at home, whereas 100 years ago people would have died in the bosom of their family. There was a greater acceptance of it.'

In scheduling this exhibition - and in light of the many others that have subsequently cropped up - Forde says she and Harris felt 'there's a need to engage with the subject even more now when life seems so precarious.

'A lot of the objects in the show, being historical, offer us a different way to confront the inevitable. I think there's a hunger for that. We have been incredibly popular since we opened. We have had crowds of people wanting to use this exhibition as a way to start the conversation.'

Clearly, we should congratulate our cultural stewards and the design community for the role they are playing in busting taboos and increasing engagement with that most difficult - but unavoidable - of issues.

National 9/11
Memorial Museum

Underneath New York's new 9/11 memorial, Davis Brody Bond's National 9/11 Memorial Museum was designed with four clear concepts in mind. Consideration for the cultural memory surrounding both site and event was key, says Davis Brody Bond partner Steven Davis, the others being authenticity, scale and emotion.

Authenticity is conveyed through use of materials (concrete, steel, glass) and encounters with genuine artefacts; scale is writ large in the grand spaces created within the museum, which convey some of the enormity of these towers - both were an acre per floor. Emotions are both stimulated and supported in the strategic way in which design and content is deployed during the visitor's journey.

The bold, geometric entrance pavilion shape, designed by Snøhetta, is rendered practically invisible via its mirrored glass surfaces, which echo the building's purpose as an opportunity for reflection. The museum experience itself is focused on telling the story of the buildings and the people who died there. Exhibits include a portion of the famous 'slurry wall' which survived the attacks; recovered remnants of the Twin Towers, including steel columns 'which were distorted in a way that could never be reproduced by any machine that we know of on earth,' according to Davis; the 'survivor stair'; plus destroyed police and fire vehicles recovered following the attack.

To ease the visitor in gently, there is an orientation exhibition at the entrance, then visitors are led down a gentle wooden ramp, past massive glass walls that look on to the memorial's waterfalls. This ramp descends 21m to the larger salvaged exhibits in the 'bedrock' chamber. But, mindful of the distress the subject might cause, visitors are offered escape routes at strategic points and an enclosed elevator to take them back up to ground level so that they can contemplate in private what they've seen.

Client: National September 11 Memorial and Museum Foundation
Museum architecture and interiors: Davis Brody Bond
Entrance Pavilion: Snohetta
Area: 11,600 sq m
Cost/Budget: £453m
Exhibition design: Thinc Design + Layman Design

Chapel of Rest,
Graz, Austria

A piece of ingenious urban planning as well as inspirational architecture, the new Chapel of Rest by Hofrichter-Ritter Architects brings activity and civic pride to a part of Graz that had become peripheral due to recent infrastructure developments. The reinforced-concrete chapel is designed in the form of two curving elements that come together like a pair of cupped and 'receptive' hands, as the centerpiece for the redesigned Steinfeld Cemetery Centre.

In planning the spaces, careful consideration has been given to client requirements, including the provision of sophisticated multimedia facilities in the chapel itself, so that families can personalise their ceremonies. There is a separate exit for the funeral procession towards the burial ground so that each funeral can proceed smoothly, without the 'queueing' that KArl Heinz Putz is typical in more traditional buildings.

The chapel, which accommodates up to 100 people, can be expanded by opening up the northern glass wall to include the open forecourt. Cultural events can also take place here. Vital ancillary and service rooms are encompassed by a wall which runs along the length of the road, providing a necessary noise barrier against the adjacent railway line. To the south, the wall defines a green area with a columbarium wall and grove with urn graves. A florist and stonemason, plus phone box and a public toilet are also situated in the forecourt.

Client: the Municipal Parish of Graz
Architects: Hofrichter-Ritter Architects
Chapel area: 150 sq m, with ancillary rooms taking up 12 sq m
Completed: November 2011

Tyne Cot Cemetery
Pavilions, Belgium

Tyne Cot Cemetery is the biggest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery and was built by Sir Herbert Baker in 1927. The land was given to the British Empire for its sacrifice during the defence and liberation of Belgium and contains the remains of hundreds of British and allied soldiers. Due to the increase in expected visitor traffic in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World World War, the Commune of Passchendaele decided to hold a design competition for relandscaping and removing the bulky entrance building that blocked the view and route round to the cemetery, and locate a new visitor pavilion to the side, with additional parking.

Govaert & Vanhoutte Architecten's elegant main pavilion - concrete on a slab and steel frame - sits partially elevated, floating above the grass-covered slope, like a periscope maximising views out towards the military cemetery. With its single-storey height and pure, horizontal concrete form, the main building subtly integrates with the landscape, providing shelter, information and orientation. 'Serenity is the base note for the whole site,' according to the architects.

Passchendaele valley is visible through the large north window of the main room - all the more striking for the envelope of black polished concrete that lines the room. A smaller room to the side contains a modest multimedia exhibition, in bespoke display stands. A small concrete amenities pavilion sits to the side of the main building, offering toilets and washrooms. Externally, a clear circuit of paths around the old and new sites has solved mobility problems and enabled the seamless accommodation of in excess of 300,000 visitors in 2012 - visitor numbers have doubled since the pavilions opened.

Client: Commune of Passchendaele
Architecture, interior and landscape design: Govaert & Vanhoutte Architecten
Pavilion size:266 sq m
Cost (including landscaping): £1.3m

Take a Breath

Thai architect Charinee Artachinda chose to focus on a sustainable legacy object for her MA graduate project at Central Saint Martins (Creative practice for narrative environments 2012). Having previously designed a funeral pyre for a Thai princess, she was struck by the contrasts between attitudes to death in the UK and Thailand, where bodies are burned ritually, as part of extended commemorative festivals.

Artachinda noted two contrasting phenomena: people are cremated, but then their relatives feel they have to keep the ashes, long beyond the point where anyone alive remembers the deceased; or people are buried in plots where gravestones promise the occupants will be loved forever. 'Except,' says Artachinda, 'nobody takes care of the graves. People want to let go.' She decided to make a meaningful memento that could be easily disposed of, something perishable yet precious.

After interviews with various people, including the terminally ill, she came up with the idea of this simple sugar-bubble blowing kit that would be offered as a memento mori - but only for those who had accepted their impending death. She says: 'This kit is not for everyone. I collaborated with a psychologist, a professional in this area. We looked at psychological processes, and decided that there must have a group support meeting with family and the patient; we talked once or twice and then all of them knew what's expected.' The idea is that a wish, affirmation or thought could be agreed on, something that somehow sums up the patient's life, ethos or desired legacy, which is contained in the 'life breath' that the patient uses to create the bubble.

The kits are not available commercially, but Artachinda, now back in Thailand, is collaborating with the psychologist who worked with her on the project.

Designer: Charinee Artachinda
Completed: July 2012

Hospice Søndergaard

Danish architecture practice Henning Larsen's hospice is intended to provide a positive and dignified space for terminally ill patients to end their days, as well as an uplifting and restorative space for visitors and staff.

A calm, light-filled oasis in the suburbs of Copenhagen, it comprises 14 individual rooms. The single-storey building is a modern interpretation of a traditional farm, where deep niches create private, roofed terraces with views of the adjacent lake. Inside, wings form two luxurious, timbered courtyards while a varied green 'sensory' path connects the building to the park and lake.

The simple, functional layout places common areas and staff facilities near the entrance, so that bedrooms are allowed maximum privacy. Furnishings and colours have been chosen to create a safe, clean, modern but homely environment with residents allowed to decorate their own generous-sized (36 sq m) rooms, if they wish.

Natural materials are used throughout: there's a zinc roof, grey timber cladding on the private view terraces and pale grey tiles on the facade.

Client: Hospice Søndergaard, OK-fonden
Architecture and interiors: Henning Larsen Architects
Area: 1,800 sq m
Cost: N/A
Completed: October 2010

Jacob Jensen
Diamant Coffin

Those Scandinavian design gurus at Jacob Jensen are - as far as we know - the first design brand to have conceived a new look for coffins.

They recently collaborated with Danish coffin maker Tommerup Kister to create a coffin for the modern, design-conscious, eco-friendly customer. It apparently took Jacob Jensen's son Timothy two years and about 75 prototypes before it was declared ready.

Made of Nordic birch plywood (rather than traditional hardwood), it comes in minimalist black or white, and is inspired by the shape of a diamond as 'a symbol of love and eternity'. Its faceted sides come to a high point around the occupant's heart, while its planes have been angled so that a single

flower could balance at this apex. The inside is lined with organic cotton in a butterfly print, symbolising metamorphosis. A matching urn series was also designed for cremated remains.

Intended 'to be an elegant monument in itself' the coffin comes in three styles according to the number of facets - Diamants 14, 26 and 32. They are available in matt or silk finish, with the super premium Diamont 32 available in a highly polished finish.

Designers: Jacob Jensen with Tommerup Kister
Cost: From £1,300 euros and 3,000 euros
Launched: November 2011

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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