Death’s rituals and realities are poignantly expressed in this woodland crematorium
In 1911, the year that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Belgian poet, playwright and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck published Death, a treatise challenging many of the cultural taboos attached to man’s departure from the world. Over a century later, some of Maeterlinck’s arguments, such as his advocacy of euthanasia, remain highly contentious but one scarcely less radical proposal found widespread acceptance more quickly. This was his argument in support of cremation. ‘Decay offends our senses, stains our memory, slays our courage,’ he wrote. ‘But purified by fire the memory lives on in the ether as a glorious idea, and death is nothing more than undying birth in a cradle of flame.’ Those words served as a clarion call for an international movement. If Maeterlinck’s argument was essentially aesthetic and mystical, the cause was lent further impetus by the very pragmatic consideration of how the bodies of a rapidly expanding urban population could be disposed of given a limited availability of land.
Free of a belief in the literal resurrection of the body − a central tenet of Catholicism − the Protestant countries of northern Europe witnessed a particularly significant uptake in cremation during the early years of the 20th century. Sweden had actually begun to acknowledge cremation’s advantages some decades before Maeterlinck’s book, a development aided by the fact that burning the dead had been common in the country from the Bronze Age to the Viking era. The first Swedish institution responsible for the practice was established as far back as 1883. However, the publication of Death had a galvanising effect and led directly to Maeterlinck’s involvement in the formulation of the brief for a crematorium at Helsingborg in 1914. Made the subject of a competition, this project was awarded to the 29-year-old Sigurd Lewerentz, working with his then partner Torsten Stubelius.
Their design represented one of the first convincing resolutions of not only the technical but also the representational demands of this new method of interment. The setting of the project’s built components within a symbolically charged landscape was particularly significant in this regard. The mourners’ journey through the site was conceived as a passage from life to death and back again: a narrative in which nature was assigned a crucial role as a symbol of ongoing rebirth. The scheme would go unbuilt but went on to have enormous influence after its inclusion in the 1914 Baltic Exhibition in Malmö. One enthusiastic attendee was Erik Gunnar Asplund, who proposed to Lewerentz that they collaborate on the competition for the Woodland Cemetery, a 100ha facility planned on the site of a former gravel works, at Enskede, on the edge of Stockholm. Serving a large swathe of the south of the city, this too was conceived as a place where cremation would form the means of disposing of the dead. Lewerentz and Asplund’s winning proposal developed the themes of the Helsingborg crematorium design at much expanded scale, with the landscape again providing a symbolic structure for isolated architectural interventions.
Completed in 1940, the crematorium itself was the last and most substantial. Originally developed by the two men working together, to Lewerentz’s chagrin the project was ultimately entrusted to Asplund alone. His magisterial design extends alongside the principal axis into the site: an orientation that ensures the open landscape on the other side of the ascending path retains its visual dominance, while enabling the development of an internal plan divided into clear front- and backstage areas. The front stage takes the form of three chapels: two smaller ones, each configured around intimate courtyards and a final significantly larger one giving onto a sparely trabeated portico of a scale that can comfortably accommodate state funerals.
Decades on, these spaces remain unmatched in the delicacy with which they choreograph their emotionally charged programme. However, the functional zone ranged along the rear of the building, incorporating a morgue and ovens, has long since been deemed inadequate to contemporary standards of health and safety. The changes that would be required to provide upgraded facilities were judged incompatible with the building’s status as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and so in 2009, the City Cemeteries Council staged a competition for the first new structure for the site in over 70 years. Asplund’s chapels would retain their ceremonial function but the storage and disposal of bodies would now be undertaken in this new facility. The possibility of siting it directly across the service road that extends along the back of the original crematorium was perhaps over-cautiously rejected − a decision swayed by the recent rejection of plans to expand Stockholm City Library, following extensive controversy about the scheme’s impact on Asplund’s building. Instead, a site set 100 metres into the dense pine forest that edges the road was allocated with the aim of minimising the building’s effect on its wider context.
The commission was ultimately awarded to the Stockholm-based Johan Celsing. A number of other entrants had proposed designs of linear distribution, with the aims of concealing the building’s not inconsiderable bulk from its main approach and ensuring a direct relationship between the interior and the encompassing woodland. Presented under the title ‘A Stone in the Forest’, the Celsing proposal was more compact, enabling a greater operational efficiency and a more economic ratio of external wall to floor area. Distributed over one storey on a nearly square plan, it makes no attempt to hide its status as a large shed. Yet while the facility’s fundamental function might be termed industrial, its programme has a ritualistic component too. Families will come here to collect the ashes of their loved ones and may choose to be present during the cremation.
Celsing’s building makes no direct reference to the earlier architecture on the site, and as each of Asplund and Lewerentz’s buildings adopts a quite singular expression there is a strong case for the appropriateness of such an individual response. Nonetheless, a strong thematic connection emerges, particularly through the scheme’s engagement with its woodland setting. A winding spur off the main service road cuts through the forest, terminating at the back of the building where coffins are delivered out of sight. The bereaved turn off the road earlier, making the short journey to the front door by way of a loose array of irregularly shaped stepping stones set into the forest floor − a treatment sharing something of the archaic character of Dimitris Pikionis’s paths around the Acropolis in the 1950s. The ground rises by three metres over the course of this journey and the experience of climbing towards the building is familiar from the way that both the original crematorium and Lewerentz’s Resurrection Chapel are approached.
The rising ground finds an echo in the new building’s expansive roof which gently rises in four directions towards an asymmetrically sited ridge. In support of the image of ‘a stone in the forest’, it shares the same treatment as the external walls: a 520mm long hard-burnt brick, handmade by Danish firm Petersen. The higher proportion of brick to mortar that this unusually long format provides gives the fabric a strikingly homogeneous character while the dark colour establishes a consonance with the trunks of the pine trees through which the building is viewed.
The reception area anticipated by the brief was modest but Celsing has attenuated it significantly by means of a wide, adjacent portico, the floor, soffit and piers of which are again brick-faced. Its canopy follows the pitch of the roof but the structure has been lent a degree of autonomy through the introduction of a narrow slot open to the sky along its rear edge − a gesture that allows light to play across the unfenestrated brick wall that we encounter on our arrival. The one opening in this plane is a large double door faced in copper that gives directly onto the room housing the ovens. This was not a requirement of the brief and Celsing acknowledges that it is unlikely to be used often but in a manner comparable to the planning of the chapels of Asplund’s crematorium, its inclusion allows for the possibility that the bereaved might enter and exit by different routes.
Set within glass, the more conventionally scaled front door stands at right angles to our approach. Some families will collect the urn containing their loved-one’s ashes from an office off the lobby while those seeking a greater level of ritual are able to take receipt in a small chapel set further into the plan. The roof profile is generally given direct expression throughout the interior, its exposed soffit presenting an expanse of the same sepulchral white concrete as has been employed for the principal walls. The chapel represents the one exception: its special status is articulated by a barrel vault which terminates in a narrow skylight above the plinth where the urn is displayed.
The large granite cross that dominates the main route into the Woodland Cemetery was incorporated late in the design following its donation. However, the site is otherwise notably free of explicit Christian imagery and Celsing has maintained that non-denominational approach, relying solely on the qualities of light, material and geometry to imbue a sense of the spiritual.
These public parts represent a relatively small proportion of the building’s floor area but the architect has been no less attentive to the experience of the four operatives faced with the daily task of running the facility. Offices, changing and dining areas have been ranged around a glazed courtyard where staff can eat or smoke at no risk of offending the bereaved.
Although internalised, the space maintains a relationship to the landscape thanks to the height of the encompassing trees and the incorporation of a number of large boulders that were found on the site. While the windows of the staff rooms are recessed to the back of the deep wall construction − signalling their more private status − those of the room housing the ovens are of larger size and set flush to the wall’s outer face. The views out to the woods offer a welcome respite from what is an imposing but inevitably somewhat clinical interior. However the windows also allow the room’s workings to be viewed by any curious passer-by. In a building tasked with negotiating the gulf between the stark realities of death and the myriad interpretations by which humans seek to make sense of their loss, it represents a poignant moment of demystification.