January 12, 2017
by Ricardo L. Castro
A masonry-and-zinc-clad funerary complex by Marosi + Troy sits quietly within the picturesque landscape of Belvedere Cemetery. Photo: Ricardo L. Castro
Heading along the Trans-Canada highway towards the west tip of Montreal Island, one used to drive by a meadow-like clearing, with a gate barring access to a Domtar cement facility. Today, the gates are swung open, the cement facility is demolished, and nestled within the clearing is an elegant building for the most sacred of rites: human burial.
Cemetery design has a long historical trajectory in Canada, and particularly in Montreal. In 1847, the non-profit Mount Royal Company was established, and in 1852, its Trustees built the Mount Royal Cemetery, bringing to the endeavour a strong sense of landscape stewardship. The project became one of the best examples of the picturesque landscape tradition in North America—a tradition that fostered garden or rural cemeteries, as opposed to traditional small churchyard and plot burial grounds. As the city’s population grew, the group brought the same values to the construction of the Hawthorn-Dale Cemetery in Point-aux-Trembles on the island’s eastern tip, completed in 1910. All of the Company’s profits are devoted to the embellishment and improvement of its properties
In 2012, the Company’s Trustees commissioned the Montreal firm Marosi + Troy Architects to design a funerary complex on the grounds of a third cemetery, named Belvedere. Located in Senneville Village, on the western tip of the island of Montreal, it is the latest cemetery of the picturesque type in Canada, and began to operate last year. The Mount Royal Company developed the project with the same altruistic ideals that guided their original projects from the past two centuries.
What are the values behind a landscape-oriented, public-minded cemetery? The architects’ design criteria included a series of precise prescriptions: avoidance of an institutional character and the negative connotations usually associated with funeral homes; an emphasis on the relationship with the natural qualities of the site; the creation of inviting outdoor areas; a careful treatment of light, colour and texture; and an emphasis on the spiritual quality of the place. Furthermore, to reinforce the project’s visibility in the landscape and give it a unique character, the clients asked for a tower-like element to be included.
Marosi + Troy skillfully choreographed these criteria in their design. The result is an expressive hierarchical treatment of ceil-ing heights and roof volumes; in warmer months, the latter shelter broad verandas. This contributes to organizing a complex pro-gram that includes an all-denominational chapel, reception and foyer, visitation rooms, as well as the special areas needed for the discreet handling and preparation of the deceased.
The architects’ choice of masonry cladding and a zinc roof unifies the varied volumetric composition. Their grouping of spatial volumes, under a single but highly articulated roof, allows for a variety of sensorial experiences that heighten the spiritual settings of the place. These are, perhaps, akin to those elicited moving through the picturesque surroundings—where one may be lured to connect visually and spiritually, here and there, with specific features of the site.
Marosi + Troy’s manipulation of natural light is a great boon to the building. Large window panes define the vertical surfaces of the main public areas, allowing a direct borrowing of surrounding views, and enhancing the luminous quality of the interior spaces. The strategic placement of four skylights in the commemorative areas serves to accentuate the spiritual nature of the interior. One of the skylights is housed in a distinctive vertical volume, easily visible from the Trans-Canada highway that abuts the site, and serves to wash one of the end walls of the chapel with light. At night, acting as a beacon, it marks the presence of this new and memorable funerary complex in Montreal.
Ricardo L. Castro, FRAIC is an associate professor at the McGill University School of Architecture.