Birmingham & Wood's new cemetary in Vancouver exudes calmness and serenity
The architectural design of the three Cemetery buildings, Customer Service Centre, Celebration Hall and Operations Yard, was driven by two primary concepts: the interlacing of the buildings with specific elements of the broader cemetery landscape, and the experience of procession through the rituals of celebration and memorialisation of death in a contemporary and secular environment.
There are few precedents in Metro Vancouver, or indeed in North America, for secular celebration spaces of this nature. In North American culture, death is typically celebrated at places of religious worship or commercial funeral facilities. Our research took us to a number of examples of secular celebration spaces in Sweden and Denmark. The shift from a sacred world view toward a secular world view has resonated profoundly in the architectural response to sacred rituals with a contemporary reworking of the primal need for ritual embedded in architecture and landscape.
Entering the site you encounter the first in a series of courtyards; each of which provides a sense of enclosure in the vast landscape, carefully containing the space and views of the cemetery. Upon entering the Customer Service Centre you are enveloped in a calm, subtly lit, enclosed space. As you progress through the building, the processional walkway becomes increasingly connected to the landscape and natural light. Midway through the building an inner cloister, to the east, provides a visual refuge for visitors as well as daylight and natural ventilation to offices and service spaces for the Centre.
The procession descends broad stairs to the north arriving at the entry to an outdoor burial area now framed between the buildings. Passage through the entry courtyard to the Celebration Hall involves moving just perceptibly downward to the sheltered, quiet entryway. The path turns and enters a reception space. Massive fir doors draw you towards the Memorial Sanctuary (Caradoc Room). On being seated one faces north toward a horizontal slice of landscape of layered elements. One leaves the Caradoc Room through an enclosed garden court crossing a linear body of water, facing west towards the setting sun.
One’s experience of the buildings is a contemplative journey of reflection, introspection and defined views into the expansive landscape. The buildings provide a modern space of ritual and reflection and a space for quiet respite.
Mountain View Cemetery is Vancouver’s only cemetery, first opening in 1887. It is an extraordinary, gently rolling 106 acres in the midst of a rapidly densifying urban context. For the last two decades it has been increasingly unavailable to Vancouverites. Interment spaces, primarily casket burial, were no longer available for sale. Individual families continued to visit burial sites but there was little interface between cemetery functions and broader civic life.
In the 1990’s, the City of Vancouver contemplated selling the cemetery to a multinational operator. Community interest and pressure stopped the sale and prompted the development of a master plan for the cemetery. That master plan is now shaping the present and future direction of Mountain View.
A civic cemetery is a container of memories in the most profound and concrete sense. This first, $12 million phase of the implementation of the 2008 master plan, has reframed a neutral and neglected landscape into a powerful new context with a remarkable venue in the city providing a location for private ritual, memorialisation and public events.
The buildings were designed around passive strategies for sustainability. They were designed to have a life cycle of 100 years and were built as a permanent legacy. The public buildings sit along a north-south axis, with controlled window openings to the north, south and east. The west windows allow for deep penetration of sunlight heating floors and the thick concrete wall providing a heat sink in the winter and moderating indoor air temperature. Independently zoned radiant floors provide healthy indoor air quality, all finishes are low VOC, and a natural oil finish was chosen for the fir panelling. Operable windows placed strategically create stack ventilation and allow for robust natural air circulation. As a result the buildings have no air conditioning, relying on the natural airflow on site.
The material palette is elemental and locally sourced within the region;
vertical grain douglas fir, a rich and warm material used in wall panelling, benches and cabinets; reinforced cast-in-place concrete with form ties visible in a fine grained pattern for tectonic expression; andesite cladding - a volcanic rock, quarried at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Used for many of BC’s early major public buildings it is only recently again locally available as a building material.