Quiet Ceremony

Prospect Cemetery and Mausoleum, Toronto, Ontario
Baird Sampson Neuert Architects

The concept of the shroud brings a figurative quality to the architectural design of this Baird Sampson Neuert project, and in particular to the typology of mausolea. Because the highly specialized contracting required to execute the concrete crypts proved too expensive, the scheme was redesigned differently from the original Canadian Architect Award of Excellence-winning design, (see CA, Dec. 2000, p. 23) with more crypts resulting in the loss of the shrouds and meditative triple volume interior space. Nonetheless the new mausoleum successfully addresses many significant issues relevant to mourning, community relations and urban design.

Baird Sampson Neuert first became involved with this building type with a small mausoleum designed for the Mount Pleasant Group. The Group retained the firm to undertake the master planning for Prospect Cemetery, a preferred burial ground for the Italian and Portuguese communities which is reaching maximum capacity. The site is primarily devoted to interment, but there is an existing mausoleum on the site which is preferred as a burial place among traditional Southern Europeans.

Identifying five sites for redevelopment, Baird Sampson Neuert focused on the relationship to the community and St. Clair Avenue. Because many locals visit the cemetery on a daily basis, the former gatehouse/groundskeeper’s cottage site to the east of the main gates was selected for the mausoleum creating a new entry and face for the facility. The existing mausoleum, west of the gates, is primarily a landscape feature of internal courts and roof gardens. It turns its back on the street, with a long unrelieved one-storey stone faade set behind the customary forbidding iron fence and cheerless landscaping.

The plan of the new mausoleum is orthogonal with a grid of pathways between crypt towers. Major routes run between the faces of the crypts with views to St. Clair Avenue in the south and the cemetery grounds to the north. The east side of the building is wrapped in a curving outer skin determined by the 15-foot distance set back from existing graves. The staircase, portico and lobby curve along the edge of the building, following the route into the cemetery. To reduce the impact of its mass on St. Clair, the building has been set a half-storey below grade. In contrast to the old mausoleum, this building is meant to be read and understood. This is achieved through the stone tower with the slot holding a large cross and the extensive glazing which permits oblique views into the crypts and of the processional stairs from the street. Secondly it is achieved by the massing and materials of the building. As partner Jon Neuert explains it, the white rendering clads the “vessels” of the crypts while the Niagara limestone faces the service zones of lifts, stair and circulation. Three different kinds of finish are used: randomly-laid split-faced stone on the stair tower and outer corner, chamfered honed and polished stone laid in horizontal striations for the processional stair and lobby and finally vertically-fixed rectangles of ashlar on the lift tower which is primarily used for the movement of the coffins. The pattern of the randomly laid stone finds precedent in both the cemetery gates and the old mausoleum. But the three types re-phrase the classical tradition of rustication and ashlar faades to indicate a hierarchy of purpose. The copper canopy completes the palate of permanence.

If the grid signifies the permanence of the crypts, and is expressed as a volume clad in white render and glazing, the curving elements of the western faade signal event, arrival and procession. Moving from St. Clair, the mourner first passes the extruded volume of the stair with its stepped glazing resting on the striated stone base and under the curving horizontal plane of the copper clad canopy to view the cemetery grounds and chapel. This route is terminated by a pair of columns which pivot the visitor back into the double storey pavilion of the lobby.

Located halfway between the lower ground and first floors, the lobby is itself a pivoting point within the scheme. On entering to the immediate right is a double-height pair of steel columns set on a striated stone pedestal framing the monumental processional route of the grand stairs. In contrast, directly ahead is a large “picture” window with a view of the cemetery and a stone sill that doubles as a bench. There are two smaller windows–one horizontal and another slot in the upper corner. In contrast to the stainless steel of the curtain wall, the windows are wood-framed and unlike curtainwalls, each is a particular size with a particular function. The surrounding wall is surfaced with a soft sage green Venetian plaster or sapele. Wrapping the lower levels, and being applied to the doors, handrails, balcony and partial of the elevator shaft, it provides a sense of furnishing and warmth which corresponds to that of the copper. Unlike the monumental processional scale of the stair, the lobby has a domestic scale encouraging repose and reflection. Finally there is a built-in desk of stone cantilevered from the wall and supported on two small steel columns. These provide an intimacy of scale that contrast with the giant paired columns framing the staircase and the pair of external canopies.

Ascending to the crypts, the colour palette of limestone, copper and sapele of the exterior and lobby now gives way to white. The grid is composed of major routes and minor routes. The major routes are lined with the traditional face of Carrara marble, decorated with the names and, sometimes, photos of the deceased and fittings for low voltage lights and flowers. Flooring is a carpet of grey and black whose oblong pattern recalls the split-face limestone of the exterior. They are oriented to the north and south, where glazed curtain walls provide views of the cemetery and the street. The extensive daylight is augmented by recessed ceiling lights washing the face of the marble.

The minor routes connect the major walkways and pass between the double loaded crypts. The carpet gives way to the resonant echoes of polished limestone and the walls are now white Venetian plaster. The lighting is reduced to single spots. The contrast was a deliberate move on the part of the architects and as footfalls echo on the limestone these passages resonate with absence while concealing the remains in the crypts behind. Parallel to these minor passages is the route along the edge of St. Clair Avenue. To maintain privacy no crypts face onto the street, and here we pass between crypts and the life of the city. To provide a sense of enclosure, the glass has been fritted with the words from the requiem mass printed in seven languages. It is another instance of juxtaposing the function of the building with the life of the street. Fritted glass has been used as a means of solar control but here with the south light blazing in September and mindful of the recent power failure in August, one wonders if some more expedient means of solar control could have been found while still maintaining the sense of connection and transparency which is the essence of the scheme.

The new Prospect Cemetery Mausoleum is a fine work of architecture elegantly composed, planned and detailed. It further achieves its goal of connecting to the street and community and creating a gateway to this expanding precinct. Its forms acknowledge the monumental and ceremonial while providing comfort and transition for the bereaved. The scheme often echoes Alvar Aalto (the extruded stair, the anarchic plan forms combined with the orthogonal, the canopy and paired columns and notched windows) as well as Carlo Scarpa (paired columns, tiling of stairs revealing exposed concrete). These architects have influenced generations of Canadian architects from Moriyama, to Shim and Sutcliffe and MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller, but in the hands of Baird Sampson Neuert their lessons are transformed into an architecture parlante in which representation (for examp
le, in the use of the exhaust pipe covers at the Ontario Trucking Association headquarters) and clarity of function and location (for example, in the recent Student Residences at the University of Toronto at Mississauga) provide the buildings with a legibility which reinforces the meaning of the work.

However I do still long for the original scheme, in which this firm brought a kind of figurative expression to the concept of mourning and loss, one which distinguished it from other famous cemetery precedents such as Modena and Brion Vega, and began in its sculptural form to parallel the expressive languages of Hejduk or Bolles Wilson or better still the choreography of Martha Graham, whose work Lamentation with a single shrouded figure most succinctly captures the essential unrelenting pain of mourning. The shroud concept dealt both with the dead and the shrouding of the deceased body, while also recalling the dignity of the shrouded mourner, best captured in the famous photograph of Coretta King, the widow of Martin Luther King. It is to be hoped that this firm which has learned and adapted the lessons of several great modern masters will in the future find the opportunity to push the language of architecture further in the service of the community.

Client: Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries

Architect team: Jon Neuert, George Baird (project co-directors), Colin Ripley (project co-ordinator), Barry Sampson (project advisor), Mauro Carreno, Geoff Thn, Jed Braithwaite, Jennifer Barker, Yves Bonnardeaux, Elgin Cleckley

Structural: Read Jones Christofferson Ltd.

Mechanical/electrical: Leipciger, Kaminker, Mitelman & Partners Inc.

Landscape: NAK Design Group

Quantity Surveyor: Vermeulen Cost Consultant

Photography: Michael Awad unless noted

Marybeth McTeague is an architect and architectural historian. She teaches at Ryerson University and works in private practice.