rendering of semi underground seneca growth complex

Future100: Students Design for Death

With an eye to natural cycles of demise and rebirth, architecture students devise new forms for memorials and new rituals to accompany them. 

Death is inevitable. Even so, very few people like to think about, talk about, or plan for it. Architecture students Dario Sabidussi and Yuxuan Xiong, both graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, are exceptions. Amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and ecological precarity, they have staked out wildly inventive rituals of remembrance and resilience through architecture. 

For an advanced design studio course in the spring of 2021, Sabidussi and his partner Diego Ramirez challenged common but environmentally disastrous practices like embalming and cremation while designing new spaces of mourning in New York’s Central Park, their chosen site. But they had to address these concerns within the context of the studio’s theme: theater design. 

 “A theater is supposed to be a space of vibrancy and life—you leave feeling full of life; you’re rejuvenated,” Sabidussi explains. “We wanted to give that same respect to the dead. So we created a theater of life and a theater of death, [to] create a new kind of funerary tradition.” 

Every aspect of the team’s Seneca Growth Complex challenges business as usual in the death industry. Visitors remember their loved ones in the subterranean Theater of the Living, while researchers study ecological burial practices underfoot. 

lightbringer rendering of illuminated tower
Funeral innovations, such as biodegradable capsules that convert bodies into fertilizer for an arboretum, tie the architecture of the Seneca Growth Complex back to the death–life cycle. Despite its otherworldly design, the students hit upon practical solutions like using EPS Geofoam to create a natural stone look underground without adding impossible stress to the labyrinthine structure.
LIGHTBRINGER (above) During the cremation process, the building’s lighting element expands and contracts to create a visual reminder of the life cycle.

Sabidussi’s classmate Yuxuan Xiong also questioned traditional mourning rituals with Lightbringer, a belowground memorial between Hudson River piers 62 and 63. He and three classmates, Bolai Ren, Yiyi Luo, and Zhongming Fang, submitted a “reverse skyscraper” to the eVolo Skyscraper Competition during the height of the pandemic. They didn’t win, but their design did raise questions about ritual and remembrance in the context of COVID-19. 

In Lightbringer, mourners descend from street level down a spiral walk into a deep atrium to send off loved ones or visit cremains, while workers operate the crematorium. The furnaces’ heat powers entangled strands of eye-grabbing optic fibers above, while river water churns through the structure, protecting it from floods. 

“At the time, we were in a very hard situation where we couldn’t have large gatherings,” Xiong says. “So we thought it would be nice to have something that’s large and can be seen from different angles, something that helps you think about the sort of memories that you want to cherish. This memorial sculpture allows people to heal.” 

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