Acts of Remembrance

Metropolis competition finalists explore ways of honoring the dead.

In death as well as life cities face severe land shortages. Overcrowding at cemeteries has caused cremation rates to reach more than 70 percent in parts of Europe, Asia, and Japan. Though the issue is not nearly as pressing in the United States, a similar pattern is emerging in urban areas and elsewhere, with 28 percent of the total population opting to cremate upon death—primarily for reasons of affordability and expedience. This rise, which marks a significant shift for many cultures and religions, was reflected in two entries to the 2005 Metropolis Next Generation® Design Competition that examined American death rituals.

Jason Lempieri, of Philadelphia’s ReThink Tank, devised a sensitive and economical solution for providing urban residents with a local columbarium, for storing the ashes of a loved one. “There is a need for places to grieve and memorialize in cities,” says Lempieri, whose Urban Reincarnation proposal was a finalist. “People can’t close the loop with the cycle of birth, life, and death.” Another finalist, Flesh to Spirit, by Peter Joel Jahnke and Keith Ballantyne of Seattle-based firm Pique[‘], explored the poetics of light and material transformation in a columbarium setting.

Members of both firms had felt dismayed by the difficulty of visiting a lost relative at a cemetery. “For me it’s very personal: I’ve never visited my father’s grave because I have no way of getting there,” Lempieri says. Jahnke, on the other hand, found the trip anticlimactic. “It was so repetitive. Nothing seemed to change each time I went—the tombstone was the same—but I was progressing and growing in life. I wanted to share this, to engage with the person I had lost.”

Pique[‘] chose to preserve elements of the graveyard experience that they feel are intrinsic to the remembrance process, such as the gradual weathering of a tombstone and a personal interaction with nature, translating them for the interior of a columbarium. They are working with Arizona Chemicals to develop a resin tile made out of hydrogenous polyurethane that erodes over the course of an average lifetime. “Because with cremation the body no longer decomposes, the tile’s transformation takes on the memory or spirit of the person,” Jahnke says. Its surface texture—an abstraction of human cells—gradually breaks down, allowing light passing through it to grow stronger with time.

Lempieri’s project took a different direction. He devised a plan to convert Philadelphia’s Divine Lorraine Hotel—a derelict landmark building listed on the National Register of Historic Places and one of the first racially integrated hotels in the 1970s—into a full-service crematorium. Doing so would not only safeguard a beloved feature of the urban fabric but improve residents’ accessibility to lost loved ones and simplify the administration of funeral services by placing them all under one roof.

The Divine Lorraine’s ten-story interior would become a city within a city where people of varying religions and cultures could carve out small neighborhoods and establish communities of the dead. Lempieri designed the hanging cabinets where the urns are placed to allow families and friends the freedom to create deeply meaningful niches in which a journal or a treasured object could be kept to preserve the legacy of a loved one. The design called for the use of translucent colored vitrines as backdrops, and since learning of Pique’s proposal Lempieri is considering using their morphing resin tile in his adaptive reuse plan. “I can imagine Pique’s piece as a sculptural landmark within the space that people could come back to and reflect on. Cities are full of incredible people who shouldn’t be forgotten.”

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