Articles

Designing Spaces for a Better Death

by Allison Meier on April 29, 2014

Hall of Solomon at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in California (photograph by Rupert Ganzer, Flickr user)

Hall of Solomon at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in California (photo by Rupert Ganzer, via Flickr)

As life spans extend and the window of time in which we experience death widens — hospital visits, hospice care, nursing homes, funeral homes — some architects are considering how we can better design for this final chapter. An exhibition titled Death in Venice, which organizers are aiming to stage alongside but independent of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, investigates the architecture of death and dying.

Floor plan of the Glasgow Sick Children's Hospital (1888) (via British Library)

Floor plan of the Glasgow Sick Children’s Hospital (1888) (via British Library)

“It hadn’t struck us how important of a topic that is, and how little we talk about it, until we started to think through and discuss the announcement of the coming Architecture Biennale related to modernity and its absorption across the globe,” explained independent architect Ania Molenda, co-organizer of Death in Venice along with Alison Killing, founder of the Rotterdam-based Killing Architects, to Hyperallergic. “We discovered so many discrepancies between the social needs and architecture, it seemed timely to bring it up for discussion now.”

To complete the exhibition and bring it to Italy, Killing and Molenda are currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter. The 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Rem Koolhaas, is centered on the idea of “fundamentals.” Likewise, the unaffiliated Death in Venice, which is scheduled to run from June 4 to 11 at the Ludoteca Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, goes back to the beginnings of the architecture of death in Great Britain and works up to today. Killing and Molenda focus on the UK in particular because of its 19th-century expansion of the hospital system and cemetery structure there. And as they note, only 3% of people in the UK want to die in a hospital, but statistics show that 53% will likely end their lives there. (According to a 2005 report from the Centers for Disease, 70% of Americans die in hospitals, nursing homes, and other long-term-care facilities.) Since the time we spend in such places, both as patients and supporters of family and friends, is lengthening, Killing and Molenda advocate that the architecture for a “good death” should be a central issue.

“The dominant narrative of the modern movement is about the ‘machine for living’ and how science, technology, and industrialization could make our cities greener, lighter, and healthier, but there’s a piece of the story missing,” Molenda said. “Those things have also transformed how we approach death as a society, and yet it’s something that to date hasn’t been talked about very much. At the same time, it’s something that is both important and universal — we’re all going to die and almost all of us have experienced the death of a close friend or relative— so it’s something that ought to be talked about more.”

One way to do this is bring attention to contemporary hospital and hospice architecture, which is far from cutting-edge, as it was 19th century, when the design of healthcare facilities was at the forefront of architecture. “Contemporary hospital architecture has an appalling reputation, so we think that there’s a role for design to improve those buildings and our experiences around death and dying,” Killing said. The exhibition will include interactive installations on death in our cities, something that often’s hidden from public attention. Perhaps it will inspire architects and the public to start considering how we could better design these spaces to be more sensitive, efficient, and meaningful for our final days.

Model of King Edward Hospital (1933) (via Wellcome Images)

Model of King Edward Hospital (1933) (via Wellcome Images)

Death in Venice is fundraising through May 15 on Kickstarter. The exhibition is scheduled to take place at the Ludoteca Santa Maria Ausiliatrice in Venice, Italy, from June 4 to 11.

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