Respite and Ritual

PROJECT Mountain View Cemetery
ARCHITECT Birmingham & Wood
TEXT Matthew Soules
PHOTOS Nic Lehoux

If the current preoccupation with youthfulness, the vast array of consumer anti-aging products, and the billions flowing into longevity research are any indication, society may well be more concerned with stalling death than ever before. While attitudes about death vary widely, the obvious and predominant one is that it is the end–a final closure from the space and time of life. Never a pleasant concept, this especially doesn’t sit well with contemporary culture, and as such, death is super-segregated and hidden–itself closed off from the world at large. Birmingham & Wood’s new work at Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery is a remarkably sensitive and exquisitely realized foil to these prevailing attitudes. Through carefully calibrated design, it offers a welcome and optimistic “opening up” of our rituals, and therefore our thoughts surrounding death.

Mountain View Cemetery has been in operation since 1887 and is the only cemetery inside the City of Vancouver. It covers roughly 106 acres on a gently sloping site in the southeast portion of the city and, as its name declares, offers expansive views of the mountains. The grounds include subtly linear, monumental tree plantings that–in combination with the rolling slope, openness, and big-scale view–amount to a magical moment in the city. There is a telescopic scale to the site; it is simultaneously vast and intimate.

Birmingham & Wood’s prescience resides in so clearly identifying this fundamental quality of the site and recognizing that it harbours profound resonance with the rituals surrounding death. The immeasurable pain that often surrounds the loss of life is nothing other than an anguish born of the cruel collision of isolated emotional vertigo and the universe’s cold disregard for it. It is both way too close, and way too far away. The firm’s scope of work covers three new buildings–the Customer Service Centre, Celebration Hall, and the Operations Yard. The former two illustrate where architectural emphasis is placed in a manner that amplifies the intimate and expansive qualities of the site, and thereby offer respite and healing within the context of mourning.

The site slopes down from south to north towards the mountains and the Customer Service Centre and Celebration Hall are oriented along this axis in a gentle cascade of interlocking spaces. Commencing with the Service Centre, a series of rooms that support the planning and provision of funeral and interment services are arranged along a processional walkway. Moving from south to north, one experiences a slow transition from relative enclosure to openness through increased glazing and transparency to the landscape of mourning. The moment at which one exits the Service Centre is marked by an incredibly explosive, yet absolutely serene view of the mountains. In a city so blessed and preoccupied with views as Vancouver, it is easy to find nothing significant in the architectural provision of them. In fact, in the academic architecture circles of Vancouver, the idea of the “view” is pretty much a bad word. However, as practitioners, Birmingham & Wood are certainly able to position, frame, and control meaningful views of the mountains beyond, offering sublime connections to the city and its relationship to such an overwhelmingly natural context.

Extending north from the Service Centre lays Celebration Hall, where a seven-metre-high gathering room is the primary anchoring space. Its ample dimension commands respect but its edges promote softness. At its southern face, a long horizontal window frames, again, a striking vista. But in contrast to those preceding it, it frames a more intimate view of the exterior, a middle ground. As Sandra Moore, the partner in charge explains, Birmingham & Wood worked closely with the contractor during construction to test various window positions to get it just right. The aperture frames a cherry tree and a subsequent row of trees with a precision reminiscent of a painstakingly staged Jeff Wall photograph.

More significant than this primary room’s relationship to its view is its associated ancillary spaces which exist in plan as an orbit of carefully considered interior and exterior spaces that support a range of possible intimacies. A private family room and private family garden sit alongside larger interior and exterior spaces, all of which are framed within a series of concrete walls that run from inside to outside, allowing the whole facility to function as a fluid yet differentiated collection of interior and exterior spaces that serve to at once merge the complex with its surroundings yet powerfully assert itself. The overall result is a group of spaces that can respond to the particularities of varying cultural, familial, and individual desires.

Like the commonplace banality of the view, it is easy to dismiss wood and concrete as a material default. But again Birmingham & Wood exceed expectations. Gratuitous displays of wood are kept to a minimum; oiled and waxed fir is juxtaposed with the emphatically reinforced concrete to combine perceptual softness and warmth with solidity and permanence befitting the program. It is not hard to perceive in the precision of the concrete walls an expression of the infinite sublimity that may exist beyond death.

To visit Birmingham & Wood’s buildings at Mountain View Cemetery is to experience a polyvalent positioning of the intimate and the expansive that synthetically enlists site, program and materials. This comprehensive elasticity at a cemetery has potentially large implications. By gently unenclosing the rituals surrounding death, Birmingham & Wood make a claim about life. Fittingly, Celebration Hall has become a popular venue for a myriad of cultural events–their deft design has enabled a reassuring vitality in the centre of a cemetery. CA

Matthew Soules is the founding director of the Vancouver Design Firm MSD and teaches at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) at the University of British Columbia.

Client City of Vancouver
Architect Team Sandra Moore, Annabel Vaughan, Andre Asselin, Anthea Ho
Structural Bush Bohlman + Partners
Mechanical Perez Engineering Ltd.
Electrical MMM Group.
Landscape Lees + Associates, Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
Fountain Vincent Helton + Associates
Contractor Smith Brothers + Wilson
Area 495 m2 (CS), 340 m2 (CH), 415 m2 (OY)
Budget $8.9 M
Completion July 2009