A provocative exploration of houses for the dead

Monument Builders: Modern Architecture and Death (Academy Builders)Monument Builders: Modern Architecture and Death by Edwin Heathcote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I must admit I was so intimidated by this book that I didn’t crack the cover for months after it was given to me. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m not a big fan of modern mausoleums; my taste in grave monuments runs more to Victorian angels. Despite that, this book has taught me more than any cemetery book I’ve read in a long while. Don’t let the title put you off.

Heathcote’s “introduction” to the book spans 73 pages and gives a thorough background on the architecture of death. He continually introduces theories that had me setting the book aside to give them due consideration. The first appears in paragraph two of the preface: “The first substantial houses were the dwelling places of the dead.” I’m not entirely convinced that is true, but it’s certainly provocative. He also posits that our thirst for ghost stories and haunted houses is attributable to “the absence of a physical place of death in our culture.” Mortuary architecture, he suggests, could help fill that void.

Beginning with the necropolises of antiquity, Heathcote’s introduction summarizes burial in churches, museums as monuments to the dead, Piranesi’s fabulous engravings, Père-Lachaise Cemetery, World War I memorials, and culminates in the impossibility of memorializing the Holocaust. Like the Atomic Dome in Hiroshima, anything less than Auschwitz itself trivializes the enormity of the evil done. That said, he discusses Yad Vashem in Israel and the Memorial to the Deportation in Paris. His thoughts on why the architecture succeeds in those places were mind-expanding.

Heathcote also writes about cremation at some length, because architects have tried repeatedly, with varying success, to design crematoriums as a new vernacular to express the possibilities of architecture to comfort and give hope. I found this section particularly interesting because my only experience with a crematorium took place in a featureless warehouse. Apparently in Europe, they treat their dead better.

Heathcote’s knowledge seems encyclopedic, spanning time and crossing the globe. Although he does occasionally lapse into architectural jargon (a glossary would have been hugely helpful), the book was so crammed with things I could understand that I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The remaining 150 pages document mausoleums, chapels, and crematoriums around the world. Starting with Gunnar Asplund’s Nordic-style Woodland Chapel, Heathcote ranges across the world to Ishimoto’s Tone Complex (which calls to mind Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), from Maya Lin’s stark Vietnam Memorial to the cantilevered bronze monument to Federico Fellini, from Imre Makovecz’s Farkasret Mortuary Chapel in Budapest where the ceiling was designed to look like a ribcage surrounding a bier where the heart should be (Heathcote likens it to Pinocchio) to Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Necropolis Extension in Italy, which looks like a scar carved into the ground.

The photographs of most of the monuments are adequate, but Ove Hidemark’s Chapel of Light is exquisitely captured, as are the points of light flickering inside the Children’s Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Even though this looks from the outside to be a coffee table book, it’s a reference work I intend to keep safely close to hand.

Get your own copy here: Monument Builders: Modern Architecture and Death

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