A Guide for Death – in Search of the Narrative? Proposal for Larvik Crematorium by Sverre Fehn and Geir Grung

By entering and passing the wall, a field of graves discern on the other side, and after them – ocean. A sequence where crossing a border is a direct metaphor for a man’s last journey – I argue this is an example of the search for the narrative – making a guide for death.

Foto av tegninger og modeller som ble brukt i en spesialutgave av Byggekunst (Nr. 6-7 1952) om PAGON (progressive arkitekters gruppe, Oslo, Norge), som var den norske avdelingen av Ciam. Bildetekst: Pagon-medlemmers arbeider. Krematorium konkurranseutkast. M. 1:200. 1. Plan. 2. Fasade syd. 3. Modellfoto.

Photo of model in “Byggekunst” (Nr. 6-7 1952) (Nasjonalmuseet Arkitektur Arkiv, digitaltmuseum.no)

introduction.  Looking beyond the slender and beautiful character of the Larvik Crematorium, my intention for this post has been to understand the foundation of the proposal by putting it in a broader context. I argue that the concept of the crematorium could be seen as an example of an architectural program that reflects on the Scandinavians’ complex relationship with death. Moreover, it reveals a history where the architecture became not only a way to smoothen the new 1900-century industry of cremation by adding a sacral dimension, but as well worked as a sanctuary for modern architects – where they truly could become the autonomous artist we so desperately tend to strive for. With this in mind it has been necessary to relate and refer to other visionary projects; such as the Helsingborg Crematorium proposal by Sigurd Lewerentz and Torsten Stubelius, and the Woodland Cemetery by Lewerentz and Gunnar Asplund.

modernity.  During the late 1800s and early 1900s, European evolution resulted in overcrowded cemeteries and the desperate need for a more efficient handling of corpses, paving the way for a golden era of crematoria. The area a coffin would claim, a whole family sunken in urns could fit – thus burning bodies became a more efficient and cheaper alternative for modern times. But evolving ancient rites and new customs became hard for those in the societies promoting it. For the multiple, it seemed repulsive that death would become part of the ongoing industrialization. The new technique was considered a non-sacred way of dealing with corpses. This ethical dilemma became a highly controversial matter in Scandinavia. Architects (missioned by the church) became important agents, interlacing past Nordic traditions with the new method. The search of an architecture that would combine new technology with a sacred dimension resulted in a remarkable amount of drawn crematoria. These facilities were thus conceived as independent from existing churches and contained ceremonial rooms of their own. The architectural archives in Norway and Sweden are full of beautiful examples from this era – where one can recognize a great deal of architectural freedom and “thoughtfulness”. Despite never having been built, one would definitely place the Larvik Crematorium among this assembly.

larvik and helsingborg.  Before looking further into the proposal by Fehn and Grung, we begin in 1914. The proposal for the crematorium in Helsingborg is often referred to as one of the first example embracing the new program. The project had great influence on the profession and became a visionary model for others to come. Described in Rum for asked (Space for Farewell) by Emelie Karlsmo, the facility’s motive was to highlight the wandering of the participants and the relatives attending the crematory event. A journey from darkness into the light, from sorrow to reconciliation: A staircase leading to the inside of the crematorium and Hall of Death marked the start. In this little and concentrated room the ceremony would begin in dimmed lighting. After the ceremony the coffin was to be sunken into the technical room one level below. The mourners continued through the columbarium and then followed a gathering in the elevated Hall of Life – a high and oblong room from which you would hear sublime classical music and receive a panorama to outer Öresund.

(digitaltmuseum.se, arkitekturmuseets samlingar)

Helsingborg Krematorium 1914 (digitaltmuseum.se, arkitekturmuseets samlingar)Afterwards, with found peacefulness, they could continue out to the urn-garden and cemetery. The almost liturgical procession (storyline) through the building is described in similar words in most literature about it.

Examining the Larvik proposal, another most poetic storyline, slightly different, is found:

“ The breeze from an opening is the pause from which to enter, the last reminder of a bodily dimension. From this point a man’s tragedy and loss are his own.“ – Larvik Crematorium (Fjeld.P.O, 1983.)

In the small town of Larvik it was to be built. On a flat field overlooking the sea, among sporadic groups of high rising trees, it would settle. Described in simple terms, the concept was based on the straight line – the wall, the threshold; from when you entered, you left the living world behind, in order to on the other side openly encounter death. As a relative, the wall is the first thing one recognize, being a reminder that entering is the first acceptance of death and the farewell to come. By two ordinary and standard-sized openings you cross the line (still felling the breeze from outside). Following its length you will find the entrance at the core. The wall is your support, your shoulder to lean on during the walk. Well inside, small rooms appear one by one, as if they were there to embrace you. From the narrow corridor a greater, more open room appears: the chapel. Its wide windows relate to the outer field where the ancestors lay. After the funeral-ceremony you wait to be given the urn. Then you can walk out and reunite your loss with the pure nature. On the field of the dead one can remember.

 

diagramplanhelsingborg_bada_a3

above; diagrame of the movement in the Larvik Proposal below; diagrame of the movement in the Helsingborg Proposal (based on original drawings, made my the author 12.11.2016)

in search of the narrative.  As Lars Bondeson claims in Seder oct brut vid livets slut (Customs and Traditions by the End of Life), it was much easier in those days when death was a natural part of life. One died at home, surrounded by family and the funeral act became a manifestation of fellowship and solidarity. In modern times it has become something different; death seems to be misplaced, he argues. Could it be claimed that this sacred construction, as earlier discussed, as well as being an answer to the new program, derives from a modern time when the death became a taboo here in the Nordic Countries – something to hide. Could architecture be the instrument for both solving and healing?

The response of early modernist architects was to romanticise death – cover it with beautiful ideals. When Lewerentz and Asplund won the competition for the Woodland Cemetery, they did not reference their proposal to other examples of cemetery, but the romantic paintings of Arnold Böcklin (de dödas ö / the Island if the Dead) and Caspar David Friedrich (Hills and Ploughed Field near Dresden) instead. Perhaps a way to smoothen the bad perception people had from the new facilities to be, and deal with the public’s earlier referred difficulties with death itself. At least, it seems, Lewevernts and Asplund searched for a narrative in the new program.

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Arnold Böcklin, de dödas ö, 1880 (http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2480&artikel=5862293)

modernistic grandeur vs modernistic simplicity.  It is not hard to discern similarities in the proposals of Larvik and Helsingborg, nevertheless easy to find deviations. Both share the will to direct the visitor, to bring symbolic importance to the final act, and in the end offer time for contemplation and remembering. They share common ground in embodying rooms for encountering death, embracing both the Nordic melancholy and hope. In doing so, working with similar architectural themes, such as experiencing the sensation of passing small and intimate rooms followed by relief in more open spaces. And finally the connection between the opener room and the outside. They also share a programmatic similarity in the way they separate the flows of the relatives and those of the coffin and remains. It is as if they want you to be aware of the remains and their flow through the building, but hide the actual cremation. Instead they create a metaphor by sinking the coffin into the ground.

axonometri of the Larvik Crematorium (made by the author based on original drawings)

axonometri of the Larvik Crematorium (made by the author based on original drawings)

However, looking at the drawings I would suggest an obvious difference between them. A difference I will describe as that of modernistic grandeur against modernistic simplicity. The Helsingborg proposal shows a very grand setup of rooms, in a style sometimes referred to as Swedish Modernistic Classicism. In this case, the committee wanted a crematorium that would claim its place and function (cremation) with pride and significance. The building very much embraces that with its high position on top of a hill and a strict planned cemetery by its feet. The simplified setup found in Larvik rejects those grandiose features. Perhaps ignoring the “hefty gesture” of the border itself I find the proposal being quite humble to its surrounding and participants. By preserving the natural elements and topography on the site its approach becomes timid, a gesture most certainly descending from a bloodline derived from the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm. Its genes become even more visible when compared with the Holy Cross Chapel by Asplund – Both working with the open panorama to the fields outside and a direct access to it.

the adjustable wall in the Holy Cross Chapel and a collage of an imaginable view from the Chapel in Larvik Crematorium. ( picture: http://archileaks.se/redaktionellt/hoj-och-sankbar-vagg-skogskyrkogarden/ ) ( collage: made by the author )

The Larvik proposal simplifies the relation to nature by preserving it and inserting itself in the existing order. By its enclosing rooms I find it trying to embody the act as one’s own private moment. Though there exists a script behind it, its architectural characteristics allow each visitor to make their own journey – always able to deviate from the wall. If one is to be amazed by the rooms in the Helsingborg Crematorium, the latter offers only the essential. In doing so (using the words of Sverre Fehn himself) – creating a horizon for which humans can fulfill their tasks and needs, and determined their position between heaven and earth.

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preserved pine tree forest at the Woodland Cemetary (arkitekturmuseets samlingar, digitaltmuseum.se)

conclusion.  It is fair to suggest Larvik was influenced by the ideas that had been evolving and circulating at that time. Architects during this modernist period, a group in which Fehn and Grung could be included, struggled with trying to give form to the passage of death. Grand or simple, the crematorium became a task and arena for which the architect could begin a discussion about many of those things we so desperately want to talk about, the melancholy – the beauty. One could say that the crematorium became a sanctuary for architectural language itself. Where we can discern great effort and intention in the trying to translate the encounter with death into a form. A form that was to result in making common people confront death. In with architecture demonstrate instead of hiding, the crematoria could serve as a direct physical touch with the farewell – a way beyond all former disguises. If the attempt eased the Northerner’s difficulties with the cremation procedure and death itself, that is something that remains unsaid. However we know most chapels in crematoria became and are often quiet and rarely used. More common is to have one regular funeral, which often occurs in the church. Perhaps people felt extradited in front of an architecture they had not experienced before.

Maybe the search of the liturgical narrative – the intimate meeting with death – still remains more in the beautiful models, drawings and in the architectural mind of the authors than in the experienced awareness of the common man.

Foto av tegninger og modeller som ble brukt i en spesialutgave av Byggekunst (Nr. 6-7 1952) om PAGON (progressive arkitekters gruppe, Oslo, Norge), som var den norske avdelingen av Ciam. Bildetekst: Pagon-medlemmers arbeider. Krematorium konkurranseutkast. M. 1:200. 1. Plan. 2. Fasade syd. 3. Modellfoto. *** Local Caption *** Fehn, Sverre, arkitekt (1924-2009)

Photo of model in “Byggekunst” (Nr. 6-7 1952) (Nasjonalmuseet Arkitektur Arkiv, digitaltmuseum.no)

information sources:

Karlsmo, E. (2005) Rum för avsked. Stockholm: Makadam Förlag.

Fjeld, P.O. (1983) Sverre Fehn, the Thought of Construction. New York: Per Olaf Fjeld and Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Norberg-Shulz, C. and Postiglione, G. (1997) Sverre Fehn, Samlade arbeider, Oslo: Orfeus Forlag AS

Fehn, S. (1992) The poetry of a straight line 

Ahlin, J. (2015) Sigurd Lewerentz the Architect, Park Books

www.nrk.no, article: “Arkitekt Sverre Fehn er död”, available:  Sverre Fehn  (interview with Ulf Grønvold), 2009. (downloaded by author 20.10.2016)

Podcast; “Staden” – episode: “dödens stad“, a podcast made by Sveriges Arkitekter, 2016. availible at: http://devstaden.arkitekt.se/68-staden-dodens-stad/

Documentary; “Arkitekterna bakom Skogskyrkogården – K-Special” SVT, availible at: http://www.svtplay.se/video/1568302/arkitekterna-bakom-skogskyrkogarden

pictures & media:

digitaltmuseum.no

digitaltmuseum.se

http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2480&artikel=5862293

http://archileaks.se/redaktionellt/hoj-och-sankbar-vagg-skogskyrkogarden/