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Cherry Orchard Cemetery by Fieldoffice Architects: ‘a subtle conversation between man and nature’

Fieldoffice Architects has created a space in which both the living and the deceased become one with nature

Taiwan is topographically divided by the Central Mountain Range: all major cities lie on the fertile ground to the west while, to the east, mountains rise steeply from the Pacific Ocean to contain a succession of smaller cultivated plains. Yilan County, on one such plain at the northern end of the island, is triangular in form and stretches 30km on each side, with a major river to one edge and several other important water courses. Despite being only 40km east of Taipei, it couldn’t be more different from the bustling capital: with a population of 460,000, Yilan City and three other major towns, it is largely rural.

Until recently, the journey from Taipei took three hours around the mountains, but with the Hsuehshan Tunnel, built in 2007, this has been reduced to an hour. Although the region is changing with the direct link to Taipei, for now it retains its rural identity and low-density urban development and, as the architect Huang Sheng-Yuan says, ‘there is sufficient emptiness to allow people to live their own life’. On the outskirts of Yilan City, among the rice paddies, is his practice Fieldoffice.  

Cherry orchard site plan

Cherry orchard site plan

Site plan

Memorialsection

Memorialsection

Memorial section - click to expand

Huang’s family moved from mainland China to Taiwan (then known as Formosa) during the Kuomintang-led government that followed 50 years of Japanese occupation. He grew up in a tight-knit Chinese community in Taipei and found a new freedom when studying architecture at Tunghai University in Taichung. There he met fellow student Cheng Teng-Chin from Yilan who introduced him to the rural corner of the country and planted the seed for things to come. 

When Huang returned from four years   in the US, he settled in Yilan, seeking a freedom he had failed to find in the West and, in 1994, set up Fieldoffice. Initially, house and office were combined with family and staff living together; now there are two buildings, which are a five-minute drive apart, but the same spirit remains. The two-storey office (a building more akin to a house) is filled with young architects from Taiwan and abroad working energetically, and to whom Huang acts as teacher and guide, encouraging them to develop their ideas and design intentions. They work surrounded by large-scale rough models that are both design tools and important modes of communication with the local communities. The models have the same expressive freedom seen in the buildings and often take in large sections of towns, demonstrating how much Huang engages with the environmental and architectural networks that link places. 

Cherry orchard visitor centre plans

Cherry orchard visitor centre plans

Bridge and Visitor Centre plans - click to expand

Huang’s move to Yilan was at an opportune time. In 1990 Japanese practice Atelier Zo won a competition to develop an environmental plan for Yilan that promoted a distinctive architectural style for the region and tied its development to an environmental consciousness based on the rich water system of the area that is vital to its prosperity. Starting with a few small municipal projects (the first a basketball court), over the past 20 years Huang has developed a style that combines what he learnt from Eric Owen Moss in the US with a very specific response to Yilan’s natural environment and people. The projects are all public, from large community and cultural buildings to smaller infrastructure and urban interventions, and Huang plays an influential role in local planning. 

He initially objected to building a cemetery on Hunglodei (also known as Nanshijiao Mountain) in Jiaoxi, but says he was convinced when the mayor at the time noted that there ‘is a kind of beauty to seeing your homeland from the high point; it is a privilege that everyone in Yilan wants’. 

Cherry orchard bridge visitor centre sections

Cherry orchard bridge visitor centre sections

Bridge and Visitor Centre sections - click to expand

Cherry Orchard Cemetery is some way up the 750m-high Hunglodei, overlooking Lanyang Plain. It consists of four parts –   a flyover bridge, a support building and visitor centre, a columbarium and Chiang Wei-Shui Memorial – completed over 12 years. Commissioned by Yilan County as   a place for all faiths (Taiwanese are mainly Buddhist or Taoist, with some Christians and those who follow traditional folk religions) and without prejudice to class,   the cemetery is in stark contrast to the traditional graves dotting the low hills of   the countryside, which are so dense that, from a distance, they look like small villages. 

Death is a shared family experience in Taiwan, although rarely discussed in case talk should bring it about. Cherry Orchard Cemetery seems to offer a solution that neither celebrates death nor ignores it: by skilfully integrating the architecture with the landscape, it celebrates the qualities and cycles of nature – and thus of life. After a 20-minute drive up from the plain, you are met by Huang’s expressive concrete bridge that spans the ravine in an arc and marks the cemetery’s entrance. Comprising two opposing curved forms that extend below from the roadsides to a giant diagonal central strut over the ravine, it was, as Huang explains, ‘intended to connect those who passed away with their homeland’. On the side facing the distant Pacific Ocean lies an open passage running along the underside of the arced form beneath the road. The passage is semi-enclosed by an upturn that, at one end, slants in to echo the road edge above and, at the other, leans out towards the sea. Halfway along is an opening through the central form to the side facing the mountain from where a staircase runs down the bracing strut. For those hiking in the area, it is a very dramatic arrival from the valley below where the full majesty of the curving forms can be seen. Constructed from shuttered concrete, with a mix of formwork boards of different timbers and thicknesses, they have a distinct texture and a raw and primal quality, enhanced by moss. This is clearly not a bridge defined by pure structural integrity but rather expresses an organic intention, as though it was carved from the earth. The exuberance of the sweeping form is surprising in what you would expect to be a sombre place. 

‘The building is refreshingly expressive and does not stick to any rules in its formulation, but seems at odds with the cemetery and rituals associated with funerary rights’

Extending the dynamic energy created by the bridge, the visitor centre houses administrative and cultural facilities. Its form follows the hillside topography and the sinuous curve of the bridge, with planes that fold from wall to path and back again. The concrete walls retain the rough shuttering on the outside but, inside, have red bricks inset into a smooth concrete finish that continues onto the floor, enclosing a space reported to house temporary exhibitions and talks. The spaces unfold around corners, winding down and up, morphing between inside and out, or with holes cut in the roof or walls bringing circles of light. The men’s lavatories – a true delight found in a final arc winding down from the cultural spaces – are set into the hill with curved tiled walls on one side and entirely open to the hill and valley beneath. The building equally encourages people to walk across it, exploring the roofscape as though it were part of the hillside. Along the edges of paths and structures stand green metal rods, evoking the grass landscape – a motif repeated in Chiang Wei-Shui Memorial. The building, if one could call it that, is refreshingly expressive and does not stick to any rules in its formulation, but its function seems at odds with the cemetery and rituals associated with funerary rights – it is hard to comprehend how and when it would be used. 

A winding road zigzags up the steep terrain to a car park from which families descend to one of the two starkly contrasting cemeteries. One, designed by Atelier Zo working with Takano Landscape Solutions, is precise and orderly with formal terraces that tame the landscape, identical family tombs in a combination of white, grey and black polished granite or, lower down, more closely positioned graves and headstones in a row. The other, by Huang, comprises seven monoliths that step down and across the hillside, following the topography to become part of the landscape. Designed for walking across, the concrete slabs feature a rough stone pattern and inlaid metal strips. The undersides are smooth, appearing to hover over the columbaria beneath, held up at concealed points between and behind them. The slab height feels a little uneasy and the space lacks the intimacy you might expect – a result of the county wishing to maximise the height of the columbaria and, as such, also the number of urns in each row.

‘The subtle conversation between man and nature that is felt across the site, aligning death with the natural course of the universe’

The U-shaped columbaria in this corridor – the place, Huang says, where ‘those who left and those still living are destined to meet’ – are set at slightly different angles, with an open space containing a sink for washing. Their outer vertical edges are made from rough slate, contrasting with the smooth marble and granite containing the ashes of the deceased. The space is further defined by the surfaces used on the ground – a polished stone lines the area within the ‘U’ shape, while the outer area towards the valley features a rough sandblasted concrete.  

The cemetery is not zoned by religion and does not express statements about the achievements of the families. Further, the loose arrangement encourages meandering and exploration. This is equally so between and around the seven slabs where the terrain is gently managed with retaining walls that follow the natural contours, allowing trees to be positioned for optimum Feng Shui (they cannot be directly in front of the remains). The retaining walls are neither chamfered nor smooth; as Huang says, ‘by then we had grown tired of mimicking nature’. And it is precisely that subtle conversation between man and nature that is felt across the site, aligning death with the natural course of the universe.  

Cherry orchard cemetery plan

Cherry orchard cemetery plan

Cemetery plan - click to expand

Cherry orchard cemetery sections

Cherry orchard cemetery sections

Cemetery section - click to expand

The most recent addition to the project is Chiang Wei-Shui Memorial, which returned the tomb of the important democratic leader to his native Yilan in late 2015. Chiang Wei-Shui (1891-1931) was a doctor and anti-colonialist, who fought Japanese rule and promoted Taiwanese culture and the wellbeing of its people. He founded the Taiwanese Cultural Association, Taiwanese Workers’ League, Taiwanese People’s Party and the newspaper Ming Pao. There is no grand tomb to mark his place of burial – instead the place, through a landscape response, embodies Chiang’s philosophy. A smooth oval platform symbolises equality, echoed with a lower walkway that faces out across Lanyang Plain to Turtle Island, highlighting the importance of knowing your origins. At a distance, the proud cantilever of the platform is dominant while a stepped garden lines the approach and hill above to commemorate Chiang’s journeys across Taiwan where he supported agricultural workers, students and women on the lower rungs of society. In lead blocks, embedded in the wall at the end of the lower walkway and inscribed in both Japanese and Chinese, is the ‘prescription’ he wrote for a healthy country, treating it like a patient. His cure? Maximum public institutions and social welfare. The place is now home to a yearly celebration of his life as well as an important marker on Hunglodei’s hiking trail. 

Huang hopes people will ‘remember their own bodies and naturally forget about time’. This is certainly the case in Cherry Orchard Cemetery as you move through the spaces that fluidly alternate from architecture to landscape to nature. Walking across the slabs housing the columbaria is akin to hiking a mountain terrain with a particularly powerful sense of abandonment to the forces of nature. It is easy to imagine that this structure can enable visitors to commune with the deceased and their ancestors freely. It is to be explored, a place in which time can be spent to observe how the environment changes with the constantly shifting weather which, one minute, shrouds the mountain in cloud, covering the surfaces in moisture, and the next bathes it in light. It is a project that improves with age as the lichen covers the structures, the material weathers and the grass and trees grow up around. Huang hopes that, at some stage, nature will take over entirely.

Cherry Orchard Cemetery

Architect: Huang Sheng-Yuan, Fieldoffice Architects

Structural engineer: Bridge: Envision Design Consultants, Structural Design Group, Tomita Structural Design, Columbarium corridor: Yung Shing Civil Engineering

Photographs: Chen Min-Jia and Fieldoffice Architects

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