The peculiar relationship between ‘form’ and ‘function’ is central to unravelling the significance of architecture on the built environment. The two concepts, where ‘function’ deals with what range of activity ensues in a building and where ‘form’ implies the overall outward appearance of a building, hastens the crystallization of an individual’s essential perception towards an architecture.
It is generally regarded that a somewhat appreciable expression of architecture is very often noted by a building with a form that complements, or rather, augments the functionality and usage of its spaces—whilst simultaneously, and, perhaps inevitably—manipulating the consequences and benefits of both its immediate and larger context, true in each of the physical and abstract manners.
A building’s function, at its essence, is unbounded by its geographical location. Although lessened by a modern civilization that is ever shaped by an unyielding stream of internationalization, the core function of a building is a shared concept uninterrupted by borders that undulates by means of a range of variables, giving rise to an infinite possibility of forms. It may be influenced by its particular climate, the surrounding status of its politics, a significantly pre-existing form of culture and or tradition, the certain development of materiality and technology, or a personal and characteristic intervention drawn out by the building’s architect, among a variety of other factors. This substantially reverberates into a certain architectural multiplicity, the recurring circumstance where buildings of similar functions host extremely contrasting forms.
By juxtaposing two buildings of a similar function built in a similar time period—‘Meiso no Mori’ in Japan and the ‘Rennes Metropole Crematorium’, both of which are crematoriums completed in the beginning of the 21st century—this essay will explore and investigate the intricate rationale behind this architectural phenomenon through an identification of the similarities and differences, as well as attempting to argue for why the buildings have such manifestly contrasting forms.
These two crematoriums were particularly selected due to their vividly pronounced incongruities; using an account on how they differ in physical form as reference, acclaimed Japanese architect Toyo Ito’s ‘Meiso no Mori’ will naturally discuss its connections with Japan’s—and on the grander scheme—the East’s views and attitudes towards mortality and the ceremony of a cremation through an architectural representation. Whereas the ‘Rennes Metropole Crematorium’ by PLAN 01 Architects parallels that by using France, and fundamentally, the West to a certain extent.
When the practice of cremation was introduced into modern society, the subsequent creation of the building type of the crematoria was yet undefined, and still is to this day. It will likely always be influenced by an intrinsically diverse system of local, cultural and historical factors.
The typology of crematoria has always suffered from the essential problems within a vacuum of tradition: the placement of the furnace, disguising or protruding the chimney, handling of the body during and after the service, landscaping and so forth. The enduring ambivalence of the configuration of crematoria is a result of the absence of neither any conventional nor international ritual or ceremony that might determine a ‘standard’ sequence of spaces.
Meiso no Mori Municipal Funeral Hall by Toyo Ito & Associates
Meiso no Mori roughly translates into ‘Forest of Meditation’ in English. The building lies between a mountain and a small lake, completed in 2006 by Japanese architect Toyo Ito for the ‘park cemetery’ at Kakamigahara City, in Gifu, Japan.
Meiso no Mori
At over 99 percent, Japan has the highest cremation rate on earth. As a country with no space to spare, cremation has always been both the sensible and practical choice in handling a death. It is also partly because it resonates with the long tradition of cremation in the country, as it first propelled through the tenets of Buddhism in the early years of the religion’s spread. In Japan, it is conventional that the mourners witness the coffin’s insertion into the crematorium oven, and after the remains have been burned family members use large chopsticks to pick the bones out of the ashes, placing them in an urn.
Meiso no Mori accommodates the cremation ritual by providing three waiting rooms, two valedictory rooms, a hall with six cremators, and two ‘inurnment’ rooms. (Figure 5)
With this building, Ito sought to merge a gesture of evocative symbolism with a logical structural rationale. The subtly undulating reinforced concrete roof, which was designed to appear floating wafer-thin and featherlight, echoes the forms of its surrounding mountainous landscape. (Figure 2)
The roof: a reference to the mountainous landscape
The columns of the crematorium have a particularly insightful backstory: Ito explains that “The columns of the Tama project were initially conceived for the crematorium. At first, we were thinking of using the same kind of columns with curved capitals and a flat roof, but those are really difficult to construct, and also to represent in model. In order to represent the columns in model, we abstracted them as cross shapes describing the outline; this became the form of the arch.” (Figure 3)
Top: Meiso no Mori, Bottom: Tama Art University
Left: East Elevation, Right: West Elevation
Top: Plan, Bottom: Section AA
Rennes Metropole Crematorium by PLAN 01 Architects
In France, the cremation rate is still sub 50 percent, meaning that burials are still considered the standard practice. There is a rather muted implication to this—unfamiliar perceptions, which tend to shift towards a rejection of the practice, evokes the need for crematoriums to combat the perceived macabre quality of witnessing a dead body being inserted into an oven, pulverized into ashes. This could be done by balancing the ritual and in a sense, concurrently the entire crematorium—which is somewhat discerned as gruesome by most—with the ‘status quo’ of a burial ritual. This is further implying that it is highly substantial for the crematorium to host a high degree of solemnity and serenity; qualities hopefully translated into the architectural configuration of the building.
Rennes Metropole Crematorium
Plan 01 Architects’ response to this architectural challenge was to construct a crematorium that “facilitates the elaboration of a strictly secular space that does not expel anyone, without denying the needs of emotion, solemnity and spirituality to be shared by everyone.”
The crematorium, which was completed in 2009, features a recurring theme of circles all throughout the building (Figure 7). It rises up, solemn and imposing, for all to see. Gleaming and open, it appears as a great disk floating in the middle of a forest clearing. The circle intends to represent the sacredness of the continuous cycle of life. It is symbolising the beginning and the end, is a recurrent theme throughout the spatial configurations. It affords a space for free philosophical, religious or cultural interpretation.
There is a clear emphasis on accessibility in the crematorium, as the intention was to avoid imposing a single path of access in and out of the building. The Rennes Crematorium created various pathways that eases the inhabitants through the thresholds of the building, stimulating an unhurried progress from the outer layers of the crematorium into the more intimate, internal core areas. It is a process in which the visitors gradually move from the noisy outside world into the sheltered, intimately silent core.
Using local materials like granite and timber, the Rennes crematorium forms a link with its surroundings and further becomes an integral part of the landscape by having a grass-covered roof.
Top: Plan View, Bottom: Section View
These are two crematoriums located in significantly different cultural frameworks, as well as within crucially different landscapes with Meiso no Mori being nestled between a small lake and a mountain, while on the contrary the Rennes Metropole Crematorium is fitted into a vast clearing surrounded by trees and fields. This explains how they vary in their attempts to create a connection with the surroundings, where Meiso no Mori echoes the form of the mountains that impacts the building directly, while the Rennes Crematorium attempts to engender that by using local materials in its construction.
Both crematoriums attempt to address the living and yet speaks of the dead, all the while accommodating both. They differ in their ways of doing this, as Meiso no Mori becomes an evocative gesture with a compelling stroke of the architect, Toyo Ito, condensing its structural aspirations to solve the complicated architectural configuration of a crematorium. In the Rennes crematorium, the architects took a more all-encompassing approach, building upon all the fundamentals of a crematorium and configuring the spaces in accord with the repetition of circles—looking at and considering all the present factors.
Ito placed a heavy emphasis on the relationship between the structure and the skin. Where crematoriums primarily function in accordance with their programmatic definitions and requirements, in Meiso no Mori, Ito invested a lot of the architectural content into the funeral hall’s envelope—the column-tapering roof, which serves as the palpable and outlining skin. Despite this, there is still a very clear formal relationship between the walls, the floor and the roof. Ito describes it in these words, “Until recently the façade was a system that was cut off from the structure. But combining structure with façade again, we were able to render visible the flow of forces. It enables ‘flowing space’ or rather, expresses ‘organic symbolism’ in a new sense.”
Meiso no MoriExploded Axonometric
It could be argued that in Meiso no Mori, by placing the roof of the building as the prominent architectural centrepiece, Ito approached the crematorium in such a way that generalized the functional program. Its lightweight and subtly undulating form—albeit built with a reinforced concrete formwork—dematerialized and merged its immediate environment through its minimal corporeal presence. As a building that attempts to emerge from a parametric structural logic to augment the function-heavy programme of a crematorium, it exudes a certain serenity and timelessness to the hall painted primarily in white. It almost forces the users to view the crematorium as part of the landscape instead of an erected material structure, tampered with by people. Meiso no Mori is a reflection Toyo Ito’s spatial and aesthetic answer to how a building’s form should accommodate the ritual of cremation.
Almost in direct contradiction, the crematorium in Rennes establishes itself in its site. As a collection of ‘discs’ with a larger, floating central one emphasizing itself at the core of the crematorium, it guides the visitors into the architects’ idea of how the flowing space of the cremation ritual should be conducted. Where Meiso no Mori’s roof is a parametric and algorithmic experimentation of Toyo Ito’s, the Rennes Metropole Crematorium has no space to allow such a similar feat of investing an architectural prominence onto one of the building’s elements, as this could be due to the context of the cremation practice in the respective countries.
The approach to the central ‘disc’ of the Rennes Metropole Crematorium
Both buildings share a horizontal orientation and use of the site, as it is almost impossible to imagine building a crematorium which does so in a vertical manner; it would be considered almost sacrilegious. The ritual of the cremation dictates that it must be taken sensitively and incorporating vertical movements within the building’s programme would detach the ceremony from the earth—perhaps unwantedly making it feel much less intimate and more commercial.
Finally, Meiso no Mori also lets itself be dictated by the already present natural features in the site—such as simply tracing the circumference of the lake and opening up a glazed wall to look out to it. Whereas the Rennes crematorium dominates the landscape and manipulates the approachable factors of its context to accommodate its cremation programme.
Interior ViewsTop: Meiso no Mori, Bottom: Rennes Metropole Crematorium
Meiso no Mori photographs belong to Toyo Ito & Associates
Rennes Metropole Crematorium photographs belong to PLAN 01 Architects
Ito, Toyo, ‘Toyo Ito 2005-2009 : espacio liquid = liquid space’ (Madrid: El Croquis Editorial, 2009)