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Towards the Light: Tanatorio in Spain by Juan Carlos Salas

The play of light and shadow filtering through a huge concrete chimney animates a mortuary near Zaragoza

The customs and traditions around death and funerals are culture specific and often community specific. How a family organises a funeral and honours the passing of a loved one is also evolving in a country such as Spain. The municipal mortuary, designed by Juan Carlos Salas, is an example of both tradition and change. In the past, when a loved one passed away at home, the period for visitation was normally 24 hours and took place in the home. Friends and family would drop by to say their last goodbyes and comfort the family. The body was then removed, sometimes to a church or chapel for a brief service and then immediately to the cemetery for burial. With a law instituted in 1996, it is no longer possible to have a wake at home, but bodies must still be buried within 48 hours of death, unless there are extenuating circumstances. Therefore, many municipalities are commissioning mortuaries – a combination of morgue and funeral parlour – as is the case of Burgo de Ebro, a village of fewer than 2,200 residents some 10½ miles outside Zaragoza. Although Spain is predominantly a Catholic country, municipal facilities do not include religious symbols and must be open and appropriate for all faiths and beliefs.

The physical spaces created by architect Juan Carlos Salas for bereavement, with a minimal budget, are not only functional, but thoughtful and calming. He has said that the mortuary was designed from the inside out, placing the emphasis on the quality of the interior spaces and their ability to serve the needs of the community when facing an emotional and sad situation.  

Tanatorio site plan

Tanatorio site plan

The mortuary, completed in 2015 (called tanatorio in Spanish, from the Greek Thanatos, meaning death and the Latin torium, meaning place) is just under 200m2 and comprises a large entry hall, which makes the transition – by the lowering of the ceiling – into two semi-private sitting areas, two viewing rooms each with a small adjacent room for a coffin and a preparation area, only accessible through a back entry for staff.

It goes without saying that the loss of a loved one brings sadness and grief. But it’s also a time when a village turns out to show support. Friends and neighbours meet at the mortuary, many of whom may not have seen each other for months. It is a time to show the solidarity of a larger community. This is achieved in Burgo de Ebro on entering the large open hall with natural light creating slowly changing patterns on the ceiling and walls. People can stand or sit, greet and comfort each other and exchange memories about the deceased. Passing through the semi-private area and a door, visitors enter one of two private rooms where the family receives visitors as they say their last goodbyes to the deceased. The coffin with the body is in a small contiguous room visible through a large glass window. Although rather unlikely, two wakes can take place at the same time in this mortuary. In Spain, it is not common to embalm bodies, so this small room is kept cold, about 4°C, to preserve the body prior to burial. Behind the two spaces where the coffins are placed for viewing, is a room for preparing the bodies.  

Tanatorio ground floor

Tanatorio ground floor

Floor plan - click to expand

The building was sited at the southern limit of the plot, thereby serving two purposes: to define the edge of the town and maintain as much as possible the existing pine forest on the site. This open natural area serves as a good buffer between the nearby senior citizens’ residence and the mortuary itself. It is also a preparatory space instilling calm prior to entering the building. From the exterior, the mortuary is a rather abstract form, extending horizontally toward the pine forest and vertically on the street side. 

As you approach the building, the entrance is marked by a slight change in pavement forming an entry porch. The large sliding door of lacquered corten steel that is open when people are gathered inside reveals a semi-frosted glass wall where visitors are conscious of the people in the hall and those inside are able to look out and see the treetops and the sky above.  

Tanatorio sections

Tanatorio sections

Sections - click to expand

The open white space is bathed in streams of light. The high ceiling with its strong geometric form, which the architects decided not to clad but leave as visible concrete, and the huge skylight protected with corten steel louvres, draw your eyes upward.

Much attention was paid to the quality of light and the atmosphere created inside the mortuary. The skylight, extending along the width of the building on the south side, is positioned to allow natural light, but not direct sun into the building. The design is a collaboration between Salas and product designer David Leciñena. The slightly curved exterior louvres were designed aided by computer to simulate the effects through the year with the changing quality and height of the sun. They are angled to shade the building in summer and allow sunlight to enter in winter and to enhance the building’s energy-saving performance. The east wall also features a large window with vertical corten louvres contributing to the interior luminance.

Tanatorio detail

Tanatorio detail

Detail - click to expand

The patterns of light and shadows change through the day and the seasons. Although few and basic materials are used – concrete, glass, corten steel, and ceramic tile for the floor – it doesn’t feel austere. Rather, the patterns of light and shade animate the space making it seem natural and calm. Light in the private viewing rooms is also important. These are devoid of windows, so the circular hanging lights that bathe the ceiling add to the reverent quality of the space.

Salas found the Baumschulenweg crematorium in Berlin by Schultes Frank Architekten inspirational – simple in form, made of exposed concrete and with natural light playing a leading role – and also drew on his memories of the bright sun on the day he experienced the loss of a loved one when he was a teenager. In this modest mortuary, one of his first built projects, he has created a quiet and surprisingly mature building. However, it is not without minor problems. The furniture and plants added by the municipality are unfortunate, as is the visible air-conditioning unit on the roof. It is to be hoped that in future buildings, geometry and scale will be considered equally from outside as from within. That said, the careful use of few simple materials, the attention to detail, how the building meets the ground, and the ability to make inspiring, humane and highly functional spaces for all the residents of his home town reveal his dedication, skill and understanding that God is in the detail and, of course, in the light. Capturing light to create calming spaces, and the ability to find community with friends and family during a time of mourning. Both have been admirably achieved.

Tanatorio

Architect: Juan Carlos Salas 

Designer: David Leciñena 

Structural engineer: Jose Miguel Escosa 

Photographs: Javier Pardos 

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