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Heimolen Crematorium by Claus en Kaan Architecten, Sint-Niklaas, Belgium

Claus en Kaan Architecten produce another piece of studied minimalism with a sober and dignified crematorium. Photography by Christian Richters

Claus en Kaan’s new crematorium complex in the Belgian town of Sint-Niklaas is another piece of studied minimalism from the Amsterdam and Rotterdam-based practice.

Exploring notions of abstraction through formal and material reductivism, it’s a powerful statement, evoking timelessness, elementality and a connection with nature.

Heimolen cemetery lies on the outskirts of the town, near the motorway linking Antwerp and Gent. The site is enclosed by tall trees and sloping banks, making it virtually invisible from the road. For practical and environmental reasons, funerary and cremation functions are isolated in separate structures and placed at a discreet remove from each another.

The reception building sits on the south-west side of the cemetery, with the smaller crematorium on the north-east edge. A small lake separates them. The reception building is a long, low bar in the landscape, capped by a 100m x 40m flat roof that extends making a canopy to embrace funeral cortèges and mourners. The heavy structure hovers, as though weightless, over the large external assembly space.

From here, mourners gather in a simple, white-walled anteroom with a precisely framed view over the lake, before making their way to one of the building’s two chapels - although ‘chapel’ is perhaps a misnomer, since there is no obvious religious symbolism or paraphernalia.

In the main space, which can hold around 280 people, the assembled mourners focus on a rear wall of dark, veined marble. The same material is also used to form an exquisitely minimal catafalque.

Though the space is entirely enclosed, emphasising the privacy and intimacy of mourning, light washes gently around the walls and floors from rows of ceiling lights set in deep, circular indentations.

After the service, mourners can retire to a series of rooms for refreshments, with views out over the landscape providing relief from the hermetic intensity of the service. The final act is conducted in the crematorium, where the aim has been to avoid the familiar and depressing oven-and-chimney appearance. Yet where the reception building has a sense of openness and transparency, gathering people into it, the crematorium - a 9m-high block wrapped in a faceted skin of profiled concrete panels - is more compact and functional.

The cream-coloured panels are inset with variably sized pieces of glass, giving the external walls an intriguing, woven texture, as light percolates through the apertures.Three huge steel ovens set in a long, clinical hall are employed to dispatch remains, and this space is publicly accessible, should mourners wish to be there to the end. Claus en Kaan’s buildings are a sober, dignified and modern setting both for death’s rituals and its practicalities.

Architect Claus en Kaan Architecten, Rotterdam
Structural and mechanical engineer Bureau Bouwtechniek
Landscape consultant City of Sint-Niklaas with Claus en Kaan

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