On my first visit to Chicago, I spent some time wandering Graceland Cemetery, which is something of an Elysian Fields for architects. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe rests beneath a simple granite marker designed by his architect grandson Dirk Lohan; Daniel Burnham is remembered with a large boulder on a lake island; and Louis Sullivan is interred at a formidable granite monument with skyscraper-esque carvings. Amid this burial ground of big names in American architecture, I was surprised to see a familiar glimmer of blue rising from the green grass. It was a shard of aquamarine cullet retrieved from the charred ruins of Bruce Goff’s Shin’enKan house in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, my hometown.
In 2000, almost two decades after Goff’s death in 1982, his ashes were relocated to this marker designed by a former student, Grant Gustafson. It was not the city where he was born or died, yet Goff’s friends and followers considered the Chicago cemetery to be a fitting place for the architect to be interred, alongside these other influencers on the American built environment. Goff is one of over 200 architects whose posthumous fates are featured in Henry H. Kuehn’s Architects’ Gravesites: A Serendipitous Guide. The compendium of tombs, recently published by the MIT Press, was initially self-published in a smaller edition as a passion project by the retired medical industry executive. Although it includes some international names, the focus is on architects who had an influence in the United States, with Kuehn’s own photographs included above brief descriptions of their lives and deaths. You can watch Kuehn discussing some graves at Graceland Cemetery in this 2014 video from the Chicago Architecture Foundation:
While Goff’s gravestone, through its shape and material, references his organic modernist work, many of the sites in Kuehn’s book are indistinct, plain, or sometimes nonexistent. Charles and Ray Eames, for example, have no individual markers at their family plot in St. Louis; Philip Johnson’s ashes were scattered at a rose garden across from his Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. By concentrating on the graves of architects, Kuehn is considering what people who dedicated their careers to design chose as their own final statements. “It seems strange that these great architects, who created landmark structures during their lives, put so little thought into how they would be memorialized for time eternal,” Kuehn writes in a preface. “Apparently most of these architectural giants, like most of us ordinary people, either did not feel like dealing with death or felt that a lasting memorial for them was not important.”
For instance, after Paul Rudolph died in 1997, his cremated remains were dispersed at several sites, none with markers. “Knowledgeable sources suggest that a portion was deposited within the ventilating system of his Arts and Architecture Building [at Yale University],” Kuehn writes. Meanwhile, Rudolph Schindler’s ashes were placed in the crawl space of his house in Silver Lake, California. According to Kuehn, these weren’t located when the home was remodeled so “Schindler resides eternally and ethereally in the house he designed and in which he lived.” Marcel Breuer was likewise buried at his former home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, below a humble granite block, with this epitaph: “Here lies Breuer who broke his knee entirely of his own stupidity.” Still, not all these understated memorials were by choice. Louise Bethune, who is recognized as the country’s first woman architect due to her 19th-century practice, long had only her husband’s name on her headstone at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. (A later plaque recognizes her pioneering career.)
There are some grand, on-brand last gestures in the mix, like Le Corbusier’s multi-colored stone tomb overlooking the Mediterranean in Cap Martin, France, or Michael Graves’s more recent red granite memorial in Princeton Cemetery, New Jersey, its playful geometric forms based on sketches he was working on at the time of his death. In Buenos Aires, Eduardo Catalano’s ashes are in both a family mausoleum of his design in La Chacarita Cemetery, and inside the colossal “Floralis Genérica” sculpture that opens its metal flower petals every morning and closes them at night.
This quiet punctuation to the end of an architect’s life is not necessarily out of humility or a denial of death, but, more likely, that their legacy is elsewhere. As architectural critic Paul Goldberger writes in an afterword, “A successful architect, after all, need not fear that he or she leaves nothing behind: the smallest building is usually larger than the most elaborate grave, and most of these architects have left plenty of buildings, most of which are not at all small, for us to remember them by.”