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Stockholm, Sweden – Johan Celsing's crematorium for Woodland Cemetery

Johan Celsing’s ‘stone in the forest’ treads carefully in the Woodland Cemetery

When the ancient habit of burning corpses instead of burying them was struggling for a renaissance a century ago, Swedish enthusiasts (yes, there were such) turned to young and progressive architects to create the buildings for this newly revived ceremony. With Torsten Stubelius, Sigurd Lewerentz devised an exemplary proposal that became the starting point for Lewerentz’s and Erik Gunnar Asplund’s collaboration on the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm. This masterpiece of spiritual architecture and landscape is to be augmented with a new building, for which a limited invited competition has just been settled.

The problems of dignifying the technical processes of cremation have not diminished. In fact, they have grown.

The new building is intended to be a small but efficient plant where hundreds of thousands of Stockholmers will melt into air, with a tiny corner for mourners to follow the process.

The new rite makes the entire edifice sanctified and, apart from the historically charged setting, this is what makes the task so fascinating.

The notion of what sort of building might stage and dignify these rituals was very open, as the city turned to such different minds as Bjarke Ingels, Tadao Ando, Caruso St John, White Architects and Johan Celsing for an answer. It was Celsing, in collaboration with landscape architect Müller Illien, who won the day with a modest, almost camouflaged, brick block, described as a ‘stone in the forest’. The fallout from the competition for the ill-starred extension of Asplund’s City Library (AR January 2010) hung heavily over proceedings. This one must not fail.

The site is on a safe distance from Asplund’s and Lewerentz’s temples. And even if every other submission proposed more intricate spatial arrangements and most were more sculpturally expressive, Celsing’s monolith does have the possibility of being the solid ‘stone in the forest’ it wants to be. It has the same simple, unaffected spirit as the brick buildings of Erwin Heerich at the Insel Hombroich art campus in Germany.

However, the jury rejected the concept of serene daylight that characterised proposals from Ando, Caruso St John and even Bjarke Ingels. Like his father Peter, Johan Celsing favours strong contrasts in light and shadow. But there are wonderful examples of simple, even brutal, Swedish crematoriums where the daylight soars in thin air. Compared to these, Celsing’s proposal has still a bit to go. But if the stone gets its sacred space, the winner will also be a victor.

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