Dust to Dirt to Dust

Volume 52, Issue 3 :: Brian Carter

Prayer Halls in their remote location

The expanded cemetery’s new prayer halls are sensitively located in a remote corner of the site.

A cemetery in England presents a notable example of how a faith community can take action in response to environmental concerns, underline the theology of Earth stewardship, and seek inspiration in history and religious traditions.

The Bushey Cemetery expansion, designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects of London, was commissioned by United Synagogues and is situated in the town of Hertfordshire on the outskirts of London in the city’s Green Belt. The 16-acre site, located in an area of outstanding natural beauty, is adjacent to an existing cemetery that had recently reached capacity. The site plan seeks to respect the existing natural setting by retaining established trees that now define key points and frame views within the new development, while also introducing additional planting to underline the character of the site. A belt of trees, set within rough grassland, defines a network of paths while a sequence of newly created reed beds consisting of ponds, weirs, and swales facilitates water attenuation, accommodates increased rainwater run-off, and enhances biodiversity. These carefully planned interventions signal the client’s commitment to the responsible stewardship of the land while also referencing this particular religious community’s commitment to simplicity.

These landscapes create the setting for a small group of new buildings. Located discreetly in one corner of the site, they include two prayer halls linked by a cloistered colonnade that together provide a sequence of dignified spaces for mourners and places where visitors can gather.

The facilities provide a total of 6,930 square feet of enclosed space and consist of two distinctly different types of buildings. The walls of the prayer halls walls are constructed of rammed earth from the site. The use of this highly symbolic and expressive material, together with the adoption of traditional building techniques, reflects thoughtful consideration of faith, history, and the environment. The design also recognizes that, once this cemetery is filled, these buildings and the earth from which they are made can be returned—dust to dust—to the ground from which they came.

The tall rammed-earth walls define austere yet dignified spaces where funeral services are held. The materiality of the walls and the gridded pattern derived from the metal formwork construction technique are both clearly expressed. Within these spaces, the palette of natural materials is expanded with the addition of an inner lining of English Oak that, together with a tiled floor that gently ramps down from the entrance, defines a distinct space within the prayer hall that faces toward the east and overlooks water.

The interiors of the prayer halls are lit from above, where a series of openings capture the changing light throughout the seasons. The entrance doors to each of these spaces are made of Cor-Ten steel – a proprietary material that oxidizes and evocatively changes color and texture as it weathers over time.

The two prayer halls are connected by an elegantly detailed colonnade built of wood, which provides a covered route for mourners and creates a series of spaces where people can gather before and after funeral services. Seating, designed as an integral part of this timber colonnade, provides places for rest and contemplation. And while the architectural typologies for these kinds of buildings may be vague, both site and buildings here have been conceived to create clearly legible routes and spaces that are supportive for visitors who may be grieving.

The careful consideration of the natural landscape, together with thoughtful design and sensitive choice of materials for new buildings, combine to reduce the carbon footprint of this cemetery. They also reflect a commitment to environmental stewardship and a desire by the client, congregation, and architect alike to create a place of worship that is in harmony with the Earth.

The author is a registered architect who practiced in London prior to his appointment as chair of architecture at the University of Michigan. He subsequently served as dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo, where he is currently an architecture professor.