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As good as grief gets: architecture, loss and resurrection at Highgate Cemetery

Good grief sarah duncan

A ghostly reimagining of Adolf Loos’s unbuilt tomb for Max Dvorák questioned architecture’s role in dealing with and representing loss

Last month, a new monument appeared in Manhattan’s Battery Park. Cast in bronze, it depicted a giant octopus pulling the Cornelius G Kolff steam ferry underwater along with all 400 on board, in a tragedy that was overshadowed as it happened on 22 November 1963 – the day on which JF Kennedy was assassinated.

This was, of course, along with the acts of many giant octopuses in their ’60s and ’70s heyday, fictional, an idea that artist Joseph Reginella had ‘off the top of his head’, if that wasn’t obvious. Accompanying the monument (small versions of which are available to purchase in an online shop), is a somewhat half-cocked selection of fake news reports, documentaries and a website, all directing people to a non-existent museum. Vacuous hoax or shrewd satire of a gullible and tragedy-hungry memorial culture, a giant bronze octopus is perhaps preferable to the more questionable works among the recent proliferation of memorials in London. And for those questioning whether we’ve reached ‘peak memorial’ – as did Good Grief, a series of debates held in September by the recently reinvigorated Architecture Foundation (AF) – Reginella’s delight in tricking tourists provides a succinct answer. 

Loos tomb for dvorakbg

Loos tomb for dvorakbg

Adolf Loos’s design for a tomb for the art historian Max Dvorák, 1921

But if only it were that simple, and the centrepiece to Good Grief would imply that it isn’t. Designed by Sam Jacob Studio and AKT II engineers and built by AF volunteers, the three-night series of debates tackling loss, grief and resurrection took place around a new, temporary tomb in London’s Highgate Cemetery: a reinterpretation of an unrealised design by Adolf Loos for the art historian Max Dvorák. This rendered it something of a memorial to a memorial, or a tomb for an unrealised idea, or perhaps all of Loos’s ideas, or all of the ideas the Good Grief series was laying to rest … you get the idea. Add to this the fact that it was only going to ‘exist’ for three evenings, and we are left with a reproduced work of meta-memorial ‘art’ that Walter Benjamin never prepared us for. 

Because this is art, according to Loos. The pop-up tomb’s name, ‘A Very Small Part of Architecture’, is based on a quote from his 1910 essay ‘Architecture’, in which he declares: ‘only a very small part of architecture comes under art: monuments. Everything else, everything that serves some practical purpose, should be ejected from the realm of art’. While the pedant in me wants to point out that tombs, in their storing of the dead, do have something resembling a practical purpose, there is a logic to the distinction. But Loos’s view that it is a ‘great misunderstanding’ to believe that art, and therefore monuments, can have some practical purpose returns to the series’ overriding questions: who are monuments for? And what are they for?

‘The monument was wrested from any intrinsic connection to anything, and was rather a gathering place, a receptacle into which the multifarious dooms and glooms of 2016 could be poured’

In this sense Good Grief was refreshing in that over the course of three days, the events around this pop-up tomb saw it become a memorial to everything, from the European Union and Zaha Hadid to acid house and the Astoria. The monument was wrested from any intrinsic connection to anything, and was rather a gathering place, a receptacle into which the multifarious dooms and glooms of 2016 could be poured: Isis, Trump, May, Bowie, Prince. While the final night came to a close accompanied by a brief recital from ‘entombed’ violinists, we learned of the death of Teodoro González de León, and the memorial became his as well – new spirits could easily move through its net-scaffold cladding.

It was all the more pleasing, considering Loos’s arguments against ornamental exteriors hiding banal interiors, that this ‘tomb’ countered the heavy, black masonry Loos illustrated for Dvorák’s tomb (presumably destined to have a sumptuous interior none would ever see) and instead opted for timber and netting, lit by a fiery light that became more intense as the evenings wore on (including a brief, if slightly unfortunate ‘Chinese lantern’ stage). Interior and exterior sort of ceased to operate, in that ghostly way.

Johnfaircloughgoodgrief

Johnfaircloughgoodgrief

All of this took place in the West Cemetery, home to the burial ground’s architectural heavy hitters; the Tudor archway gatehouse nestled between Gothic mortuary chapels and the Colonnade, the geometry of which pushed the audience into a semi-circle around the tomb. There are none of the contemporary flourishes that   dot the East here – the Caulfields and the McClarens – and framed by the gatehouse with the Colonnade stretching out either side it certainly packed a visual punch. Eerily, the temporary tomb foreshadows a not entirely dissimilar impression of a new £2m mausoleum under construction just metres away (the first in Highgate for a century), one which is about as far as you can get from temporary, with limestone that will withstand centuries.

As for the grieving itself, a debate around the EU referendum of course saw much mutual agreement, despite Patrik Schumacher having to (in his own words) ‘crack up the thick concrete wall of our discipline’s anti-capitalist consensus’. An evening centred around Hadid, which perhaps only too late got an injection of criticality, nonetheless served to reintroduce some lesser-known works that really do deserve a second look – the Hoenheim-Nord Terminus and Car Park being one – if only now to enable a look at the Antwerp Port House with a more questioning eye. The final evening, which took aim at London’s memorial culture as a whole, steered away from thornier issues such as Norway’s move to scrap the controversial Utøya Memorial, London’s Holocaust Memorial or how to memorialise the Paris attacks, and instead offered a somewhat disparate mix of Andy Groarke’s experiences designing the 7/7 Memorial in Hyde Park with some of London’s worst offenders – the Animals in War Memorial, also in Hyde Park, and Green Park’s Bomber Command Memorial to name but two. The question of how to reinvent the memorial was somewhat bypassed by the question of whether they should simply cease entirely.

Highgate Cemetery is at something of a crossroads. Over an election of new trustees, a row broke out about it becoming a ‘Disneyland of Death’, accused of becoming too business and tourism focused. Burial spaces such as these are an incredible luxury – not just for those able to bury loved ones there but in their ability to endow an environment with public space. Good Grief is a glimpse at the cemetery-as-event space, and it certainly doesn’t mean Disneyland – this is not only a consideration of what a memorial can be but, by extension, what a cemetery can be. Or perhaps it is best to simply respond by paraphrasing another better left unscrutinised Loos quote: ‘a work of art does not have to please anyone’.