Castle Hill Sanctuary, Welsh + Major

Architects David Neustein (Other Architects) and David Welsh (Welsh + Major) discuss the pragmatics and aesthetics of Australian cemetery design. Their converstaion is framed by Castle Hilll Sanctuary – a recently completed non-denominational space for congregation, celebration and grief designed by Welsh + Major. 

David Neustein

Clinton Weaver

David Neustein:­ Our conversation today captures the perspectives of two Australian architects who find themselves working in cemetery design, which is fairly unusual. I’m interested in cemeteries because of the incredible contrast between the historical richness of architect-designed cemeteries and the relative banality of Australian burial spaces. I try to think about ways we can bridge that divide. What is it about cemeteries that drew you in or interests you?

David Welsh: Like churches, or other religious and ceremonial spaces, cemeteries offer a very rare and refined brief. I would agree that there aren’t any particularly outstanding contemporary cemetery spaces in Australia, yet. There are some lovely moments at Rookwood Cemetery for example, and some interesting landscape elements, but the buildings that support these spaces seem to be continually compromised.

The building that we designed for Castle Hill Cemetery is non-denominational and for that reason we focused on the essential elements – the parts that create commonality. For us, it is about distillation, trying to allow for aspects of the human condition to be experienced. Whether it’s grief or celebration, in this place the emotions of those visiting are often very raw. It’s also a space used equally by individuals and by groups, and somewhere that people return to after the internment ceremony. So, yes, it’s an interesting typology.

DN: One of the things that I would say characterises your practice at Welsh and Major is that you seem to put an intense amount of care into the edges and elements that make up the spaces you design. Do you think that in your work at Castle Hill Cemetery, people come to the building at a time when they might be appreciative of the space around them and notice that intent?

DW: It’s interesting that you touch on the idea of designing and creating edges because we do think that it’s at the interfaces of objects, materials and systems where architecture really starts to become important.

There’s a strange dichotomy that exists when you’re designing for people at a cemetery. The architecture needs to feel appropriate for the celebration of a life, but at the same time it shouldn’t be a distraction. For us, that’s where the design of the edge, an element, or particular aspects of spaces become so important. We found this to be the case in examples all around the world, regardless of faith or cultural expectations. There is always a place to sit, for a lot of different reasons – the people who visit these spaces vary from young to older, including those who are very distressed. The mensa, which is Latin for ‘table’ or ‘hearth’, becomes a focal point. And the way you manipulate light becomes important to the atmosphere. This project at Castle Hill Cemetery, for instance, is sited among a grove of eucalypts, so the light is naturally dappled. The sense of quiet repose invited by the trees informed the architectural response.

DN: Before we talk more about how the building responds to light, I’d like to speak a little bit about the place that this structure sits within. One of the aspects of the design that I enjoy the most is the interplay between the ‘elevated’ and the ‘ordinary’. For example, there’s a very fine floating roof canopy, with very precise elements that keep it aloft. This roof is clearly delineated from the low columbarium walls that enclose the space, which are basically a curved variation of the precast ‘letterbox’ walls you see in almost every cemetery. I think there’s a tension between the great interest in the design of these spaces and their ceremonial qualities, and the realities of working in a present-day Australian context.

DW: We often talk about enjoying the spectacle of the ordinary. There are everyday things that just have to happen in any building. Architects often avoid talking about them, but in a cemetery project, you’re working with the pragmatics of life and death – interring bodies necessitates pragmatic outcomes.

When we started this project we were told that the cemetery needed more space, and there were specific numbers of interred that we needed to accommodate. There are calculations involved, based on population and demand, when memorialising people and you can’t shy away from that. We worked with the standard for columbarium walls because in every project you have to find ways of working with existing systems. Plus, we think that standard elements can serve as a backdrop to illuminate the more architecturally compelling components – in this case the canopy, the table and the seating arrangement. Expressing the ordinary can emphasise the refined or elevated.

DN: When we were designing a similar gathering space, a currently unbuilt project for the Islamic section at Rookwood Cemetery, we played a lot with the idea of taking on ‘Bunnings Scarpa’ energy. We knew that the budget would be tight, but we were still looking for the kind of fineness and care that would lift the space – that would tell people who visited that it had been carefully thought through. It’s an ethic that you can see in the older tombs that are ubiquitous to cemeteries. The effort of a mason is legible, while the more modern monuments are prefabbed and there’s just not the same level of care. So as architects designing contemporary cemetery buildings, we’re trying to speak to that legacy, and I can see that very clearly in the table element you’ve designed.

DW: I really like your description of the ‘Bunnings Scarpa’ – it’s completely apt. We’ve often talked about a Bunnings aesthetic as well. There are materials you can work with that are extremely commonplace and it’s how you put them together that becomes important. So, while we have included that very beautiful marble for the tabletop, the table element is a refined version of the concrete material that the columbarium’s made of. I like that there’s a link between the two.

Castle Hill Sanctuary, plan.

DN: The space you’ve created is highly ritualised. I noticed that the seating has shifted between early drawings and realisation, from two rows of benches to just two benches. In that, the building went from suggesting a chapel, with its rituals and unwritten rules, to a more open space.

DW: When we started drawing the seating, we were reflecting on the fundamental question of what is actually required for this type of space. There’s an interesting photograph of a person sitting on one of the seats. She’s turning her back on the mensa because she’s facing in the direction of her recently deceased husband, who is interred in one of the walls opposite. Just having a single bench was intended to invite people to shift the focal point outward, and it was quite lovely to see it working.

DN: It’s a space that has a great deal of inclusivity. To me – and I mean this with the greatest sense of praise and respect – to me the building is a bit like a highly detailed barbecue shelter, which I think comes from the balance between formal and informal elements.

DW: Look, I do love a good barbecue shelter! And there had to be a pragmatism in this structure. Some people are just looking for basic shelter, some for other things. The maintenance division, for example, were looking for the right colour grey so that they could repaint it as needed. And you can’t dismiss that.

DN: And on that score, I get the sense that you really enjoy the process of attrition that can come from working with prescriptive clients and budgets­ – where you set up design objectives and then negotiate all the requirements that get thrown at the project until what you end up with has a fundamental quality. In this instance, I know that in an earlier design the pendant above the mensa was suspended from a series of radiating cables so the roof was more of a draped element, whereas the end design is much more planar. How did the different iterations of that element unfold?

DW: There’s a photograph of Asplund’s Woodland Chapel in which the dome that sits over the congregational space reads as a single illuminated surface – flat and without volume. For Castle Hill Sanctuary we intended to develop something with similar qualities, but as the design evolved and resolved it needed to be simplified. I don’t see that we lost, or gained, anything in that – it’s just a natural evolution and response.

DN: A great deal of technical skill and effort has gone into creating the lightness of the roof, which I’m curious about. In our design for the space at Rookwood Cemetery, we proposed a series of almost transparent polycarbonate vaults and we essentially tortured our engineer to have the structure appear as light as possible, with asymmetrical columns that looked as though they were effortlessly holding up the roof. Hanging below the vaults was a stainless-steel mesh for shade but everything was translucent. We put so much effort into keeping it light, to keeping it open, to not casting shadows. I’m still not sure why that was so important to us, I wonder if you have an answer as to why it was important for you to make the Castle Hill space light, open and free of shadow.

DW: There are always associations with light in the language of death. We may have absorbed some of those subconsciously but reflecting on the precedents that were of interest for this project, where there was perhaps more religious awareness, light was a significant part of the design response.

Lighting is also about focus. At Castle Hill Sanctuary it’s about the theatre of what’s going on when you’re celebrating the life, and mourning the loss, of somebody. I remember a lighting designer once said to me, “Good theatre lighting shouldn’t be noticed.” It’s all about the story and, in this case, the person being remembered, their family and friends. As an architect you put so much energy into the architecture, but that’s not where you want the focus to lie for people when they’re there.

DN: It seems like there’s always an aesthetic or atmospheric aspiration that’s tempered by pragmatism. In the columbarium wall for instance, which grounds the building in the architectural language of the contemporary Australian cemetery, there’s actually a subtle inefficiency that comes from having a radial array of niche walls. If they were perpendicular or worked off right angles, there would have been potential for tighter stacking.

DW: A higher yield?

DN: Exactly. And yield drives so much of any cemetery development. When you see cemetery masterplans in Australia, they typically work to the most efficient grid. We’re not seeing the type of Elysian Fields that were influential in the last two centuries. So, was the circular plan a first response, or was the diagram the best way of resolving the tension between providing the infrastructural walls and creating a space for people?

DW: The curved walls are a very intuitive response to the brief. In the broad initial brief there was a public crypt, a series of more orthogonal columbarium walls and a sales office. We had more freedom with The Sanctuary, as it has come to be known, because it forms a focal point in the overall renewal of the cemetery. It’s also sited within a circle of eucalypts, so the clients were happy to see the configuration reach fruition despite the reduction in internment space.

Castle Hill Sanctuary, site diagram.

DN: As one of very few examples of contemporary cemetery architecture in Australia, this project helps to shift expectations around the function, aesthetics and quality of buildings like it. The circular diagram is important because it connects to a history of circular tombs, like Etruscan tumuli, Mycenean chamber tombs or pantheistic examples – very different from the  direct, linear and symmetrical Anglican and Protestant architecture.

DW: The cemeteries that I know are always divided up by denomination, and the people involved in Castle Hill Cemetery wanted to push beyond that. We have so many different denominations, disciplines and cultures in Australia now that the cemeteries we’re working with at the moment, which are predominantly based on Christian orthodoxy – with the occasional Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist section – aren’t adequately serving the community.

DN: I’m interested in hearing what’s happened since the project has been inaugurated. What’s your perception of how this space is meeting the world and how people have encountered it?

DW: We’ve only been out there a few times. There are two photographs that Clinton Weaver took of a woman using the space, which I think is the most telling story to date. It’s a place that people can feel comfortable in and go to at any time, which is important because often chapels are locked – this space creates something that’s a little more open and accessible. I’m going to try and go out there every few months to see how it’s evolving and observe how it’s working.

DN: Well, you’ve made a cemetery space so you’ve got one hundred years or so to see how it evolves.

Originally published in Union 01. For more drawings and photography of this project subscribe to Union magazine.

“In a cemetery project, you’re working with the pragmatics of life and death – interring bodies necessitates pragmatic outcomes. There are calculations involved, based on population and demand, when memorialising people and you can’t shy away from that.”

Castle Hill Sanctuary, Sketch

“The cemeteries that I know are always divided up by denomination, and the people involved in Castle Hill Cemetery wanted to push beyond that. We have so many different denominations, disciplines and cultures in Australia now that the cemeteries we’re working with at the moment aren’t adequately serving the community.”