Necropolis Now: rethinking the modern cemetery in England’s Rurbania.

What was it like when London was industrialising and expanding hugely in the 19th century? When the fields around the capital were engulfed by marching rows of terraced houses? One well-recorded aspect of urban growth was the need for new burial grounds. The old churchyards and crypts could not cope, especially when faced with the consequences of urban disease epidemics such as cholera. The great necropolises, planned townships of the dead, duly came into being.

And today? With enormous numbers of houses once again being built across the south-east, it follows logically that development for the living must also engender development for the dead. But what should a modern cemetery, and a modern cemetery chapel, look like? How to accommodate the needs of different religions and none? This was the task faced by architects mae, who were brought in to design a new cemetery, Wilbury Hills, between Letchworth and Stevenage in Hertfordshire.

This is an unusual job for a modish young practice to be associated with. Mae – proprietors Alex Ely and Michael Howe – is known for exercises in prefabrication, such as the “m-house” – a new take on the idea of the caravan-park home – with designer Tim Pyne. Housing is pretty much their thing, in fact, and it is encouraging that are working on a competition-winning high-density new suburb at Houghton Regis (in the Luton/Dunstable area) with Proctor Matthews. There is an interest in the ephemeral, the temporary, in their work. They do domestic work and interiors, as well. So do many practices: few also have a lively interest in burial grounds. Few stop to consider the intriguing question of the last resting-place.

The chapel/cemetery is their first civic building. “In fact,” says Howe self-deprecatingly, “It’s only about the third project we’ve done that actually gets rained on.” Wilbury Hills might sound like something Californian, something out of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. The truth is just as prosaic as you would expect from its location: a patch of farmland on the edge of an urban area, with a busy road running along one edge, sloping gently away to distant views. Mae’s services were called upon by North Herts District Council after the partners – who have made an academic study of the architecture of burial – wrote an article, “Cemeteryscape”, in the kind of publication you don’t often find listed on architects’ websites: The Journal of the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration.

London and many other cities, the pair noted, is running out of cemetery space. Existing graves cannot easily be re-used. Cremation is starting to look ecologically dodgy, and several faiths reject it. A space crisis is looming, and it is not one the government is doing anything about. “The dead do not vote and we, as a culture, are so distanced from our dead that no great public pressure has built up to combat this lack of political will,” Ely and Howe noted. What happened to the mentality that produced the great Victorian necropolises? “If one knew people who were buried in a local cemetery, if the cemetery could help to foster local identity, how different might our attitudes towards our and others’ mortality be.”

Instead of a few big, remote cemeteries, why not a return to the small local burial ground, they argued? And they proposed a new model based on the communal mausoleum common in the rest of Europe, as famously developed by the late Enric Miralles in Barcelona’s Igualada Cemetery. Mae suggested a “continuous rolling landscape of interment structures” that could be built on odd-shaped pieces of leftover urban land such as railway verges, edges of golf courses and so on. Thus placed among us, like the familiar village churchyard, death would lose its sting, become familiar, even comforting. Where’s granddad gone? Just over there.

The idea was worked out in some detail as a concept, and duly led to the real-life commission of Wilbury Hills – which although greenfield, was appropriately local. The task was to rescue a scheme that had been conceived in haste, and where burials had already begun in a somewhat ad-hoc fashion. A non-denominational chapel – which can also be used for school visits to what will effectively become a nature reserve – was required. A landscape strategy was needed. But there was a difference: in the area is a long-established originally Sicilian community which adheres to the Mediterranean tradition of burial in above-ground niches. So Ely and Howe could revisit their idea of the architectural burial structure as part of a more conventional landscape solution.

When I visit, the builders and landscape contractors are still finishing off. The new landscape – arranged into an almost market-garden pattern of intersecting smallish plots – is raw earth, the lines of hedging trees barely visible whips, the buildings having their internal finishes and external seating installed. It is not, yet, a place worthy of Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Sublimity is in short supply. Yet mae’s ordering devices are starting to have their effect. The chapel – conceived as a conjoined pair of ad-hoc agricultural buildings, a served and servant space – anchors the composition. When the stands of trees grow up, its reference to Asplund’s Woodland Chapel will become clearer. There are other references, including the artfully ad-hoc garden around film-maker and artist Derek Jarman’s Dungeness beach house. As the cemetery expands in phases, its pathways winding down the slope through drifts of flowers, it will also draw some of its inspiration from German Romantic paintings.

The chapel is free of overt religious imagery – it has to be, to accommodate the many faiths of the area, all of which were consulted – but the interlinked tall top-lit spaces provide an air of calm and contemplation, it has an easterly aspect, and there is an “ablutions cupboard” for faiths needing it, off the entrance hall. Materials are durable – zinc roofs, stack-bonded blue engineering brick, larch. The Scandinavian feel is enhanced by Poulsen “Orbiter” suspended light fittings. The same materials palette is extended to the above-ground mausoleum, arranged as a series of freestanding brick boxes beneath an oversailing roof. Its underside is of exposed timber, extending forwards to form a dignified colonnade. The niches are surprisingly large – not only because people are getting larger, but because of the fashion among the local community for huge American-style caskets rather than traditional smaller coffins. In the Mediterranean way, the niches will be bought for a specific period – in this case 50 years – before the bones are transferred to ossuaries elsewhere.

As with housing for the living in the south-east, demand is high, and a second phase of the mausoleum, extending the colonnade, is likely to start on site almost immediately. After which, a further colonnade is allowed for in the masterplan. You could not describe these posthumous capsule homes as exactly luxuriously appointed – the caskets will presumably provide the bling element – but even so it is amusing to see that the interiors of the niches are as carefully finished, in the same stack-bonded brick, as the exteriors. These spaces are going to be sealed up. A rough concrete inner leaf would have sufficed. On what is a low budget, this is a nice expression of respect for the dead. The equivalent of tombstones will be the engraved slate panels that seal the niches.

The buildings and the landscape plan, with its meadows and copses and hedgerows, together present an intelligent, modest and dignified architectural response to a pressing problem. It is still a suburban solution, yet it leans towards the urbanistic. It is a challenge. Dare we engage with a new high-density architecture of death and remembrance?

Text © Hugh Pearman, photos © Michele Panzeri, other images courtesy of mae architects. First published in the RIBA Journal, April 2007 issue.

mae architects: http://www.mae-llp.co.uk
RIBA Journal: http://www.ribajournal.com