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“Ed, are you interested in a project to design a mausoleum?” asks Craig Halvorson, the noted landscape architect. “You know, Craig, we have never done a mausoleum.” Craig replies, “No good architects have ever done a mausoleum, so that’s why I am calling.” Craig’s firm Halvorson Design Partnership was the prime consultant on a cemetery restoration/expansion project for historic Lakewood Cemetery in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was tasked with putting together a short list of firms to collaborate with them to add a mausoleum to the grounds. We had worked with Craig on multiple projects at University Park in Cambridge and on a private home in Maine. He knew Peter Shaffer, a principal of our firm, who was on the board of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from his firm’s work there and thought Peter’s board experience would complement our design approach.

You have to remember that this was 2008 and things were beginning to fall apart in the financial system such that any opportunity had some level of appeal. As I ran this through my mind, I could not recall much cemetery architecture other than Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery Chapel and Crematorium in Sweden. It also occurred to me that if we could just capture a person’s last resting place, we would have the entire residential market covered from beginning to end. After assurances from Craig that this was indeed a legitimate search for someone new without specific relevant experience and that it was a very short list of designers being considered, I thought it would be an interesting challenge and decided we should pursue the opportunity.

Lakewood Cemetery

BACKGROUNDEstablished in 1871, the 250-acre Lakewood Cemetery is one of the preeminent historic cemeteries in the country. It is an excellent example of the lawn plan cemetery style that was popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. The cemetery had been working for several years with Halvorson and Elizabeth Vizza Consulting on a comprehensive master plan for both preservation and development.

An important component of the master planning effort was an assessment of the cemetery’s burial development capacity and recommendations to extend Lakewood’s life as an active cemetery. Creative alternatives to conventional commemoration were developed to allow Lakewood to maximize development potential while integrating new burial into the naturalistic and historic character of the cemetery’s landscape. One component of the study was provision for above-ground burial (from the Request for Qualifications).

The existing 14,400 sf mausoleum, constructed in 1967 with space for over 3,000 crypts and 2,000 niches was nearing capacity, and an RFQ was issued to proceed with the next phase of development. We cleared the qualifications hurdle and were subsequently issued an RFP that asked for some insights into the project design and also for three client references for projects relevant to Lakewood’s. We were asked to explain how the projects related to the proposed mausoleum. This is where we had to be a little creative in our response.

The first project we chose was the Fire Fighters Academy for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “A building type we had never done before.” We explained that when we started the project, we knew even less about fighting fires than we knew about dying so it proved we could successfully tackle an unfamiliar program. The second project was the Farris residence, “A physical container for personal, memorable pieces.” The house was an expression of personality and the backdrop for the collection of a lifetime—in a way, similar to telling the life stories of those who have passed. The last project was Loft23, “A building that respects its campus setting.” This project demonstrated how to sensitively add a building to an existing context while creating an identity all its own. These projects and this descriptive approach succeeded in getting us to the shortlist and to an interview with the committee in Minneapolis.THE SITE The site of the proposed mausoleum had been determined in the master plan to be located near the cemetery’s main entrance and was flanked by a small 1909 jewel-like chapel, loosely based on the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul, and the existing, more austere 1967 mausoleum. These two structures are linked by a rectilinear pool that spans the length of a long site depression that rises up on the north and south to meet the natural grade of the landscape.

Left: 1967 Mausoleum        Right: The Chapel

In our research, we learned that in these garden style cemeteries, there were ratios put in place for the number of vertical monuments per acre in order to preserve the vision of “monuments in the landscape” rather than trees in a cemetery. In the 19th century, skilled artisans carved ornate three-dimensional family monuments which marked the burial place of several family members. This style persisted into the early part of the 20th century when the stone carving trade began to die out and machine made stones arrived on the scene. This led to the slab type monuments that tended to have a front and back, as opposed to the object quality of the earlier markers. As cemeteries began to fill up, the density of monuments and the increasingly slab-like character began to alter the perception of the landscape cemetery and Lakewood went to flat markers in the ground to preserve the open space characteristics of the landscape cemetery.

19th century carved monuments

Left:  Mid-century slab monuments         Right: In-ground markers that preserve the open feeling

This evolution of monument types across this long history and the unique bowl-shaped depression of the mausoleum site suggested that this project could be a metaphor for historic development of the cemetery. If we considered the 19th century chapel to be representative of the earlier three dimensional monuments and the existing 1960s mausoleum building to be like the slab type monuments, then the missing piece would be the flat in ground markers. This led us to consider the new mausoleum expansion as one that is “of the ground”—like an in-ground marker— and not simply another structure on the ground that would compete visually with the two existing buildings. Our solution respects the strong axial relationship between the chapel and existing mausoleum and proposes structures that are really the “absence of a building”—a solution that is fully integrated into the landscape providing both a beautiful physical setting and a new memorial typology for the cemetery.

Original concept sketch

Using the landform as integral to the solution is connected to both the natural cycle of life and death and also to issues of sustainability and permanence.  A series of pavilions or fingers emerge from both slopes and extend toward the center spine. These structures, housing both crypts and vaults, could be open-air columned pavilions or fully- or semi-enclosed spaces. Full-height operable window walls would allow both passive winter heating when closed and summer cooling through natural ventilation when open. The tops of these structures are continuous with the surrounding grade, so that the roofs are planted “green” and carry the garden into the center of the site. The planted roofs are punctuated with glass skylights that bring the warmth of natural daylight down into the mausoleum spaces. These structures, emanating from the ground, provide a physical connection to the immediate and extended site and are a literal extension of the natural beauty of the cemetery and memorial gardens.

Three initial concepts (Click to enlarge)

We had to quickly come up to speed about the cemetery business. Lakewood had a walkthrough and the Executive Director provided some background on the cemetery business and what they had learned over the years. There has been increasing trend towards cremation and a need for niches. The crypts near natural light and within a person’s reach sold first. The ones high up near the ceiling were a difficult sell. There was discussion about the emerging trend to display an electronic record of a person’s life and how that might influence remembrance, a screen of changing photos for instance. The scheme needed to be able to be implemented over time in relation to sales of space. The cemetery chapel was also a popular wedding venue and there was a desire to create a space to hold services and receptions. Last but not least, was an emphasis on sustainability that was a guiding principle in the operation of the cemetery. All of these factors played a part in the generation of our ideas for the interview stage.

Recognizing the desire for individual expression as one of the emerging trends in mausoleum design, we conceived offering crypt and vault panels in a variety of materials, colors and textures that can form an overall mosaic impression or tapestry (quilt) of the community—celebrating the individual life and recognizing its place within the greater context of place and time.

Section showing potential daylighting and ventilation strategies to address sustainability concerns and to take advatange of the temperate summers in Minneapolis.

Sketch illustrating the connection of the crypt rooms with landscape and the opportunity to create contemplative space.

Hopefully you can see this concept as a sound approach to the project as convincingly as we did. Kenneth’s sketches are beautiful and remind us of the power of hand drawing to capture ideas and allow the viewer to read their own feelings in the line work. We also brought a lighted model of each scheme to illustrate how the topography reinforced the idea. However, this one got away from us and the committee selected a local Minneapolis firm, HGA, with Joan Soranno FAIA as the design principal. The project that they and Halvorson Design Partnership designed and executed is an exquisite work of architecture integrated with the landscape. It shows creative use of materials and manipulation of natural light to dramatic, spiritual, and contemplative effect. It is worth a look if you have not seen it and a visit if you happen to be in Minneapolis. Check out the links below:

HGA and  World Landscape Architect

It is not often that a project that you competed for and lost is executed by another architect in a way that is so close to your own conception of that project. Here, the finished work captures all the opportunity that we saw in the project. Given that at the outset, we had not yet contemplated ever designing a mausoleum, we found the learning process and the potential to be much more interesting than we first imagined. We can honestly say that this process and project changed our perception of the architectural opportunities inherent in a mausoleum commission. Designing for death instead of life resulted in a changed perspective.