Lying low

Crematorium Siesegem by KAAN architecten

KAAN Architecten’s design for Siesegem crematorium in Aalst embraces its role as a humble servant to humanity through its form and feel. Minimalism is where its power lies, through its presence as a universal canvas for all kinds of beliefs.

Throughout history, death has been magnified by architecture – pyramids protected the graves of the ancient Egyptian rulers, a green dome covers the tomb of Muhammad in Medina, while soaring Gothic vaults were constructed in churches to instil mortal fear into their congregation. Inside these places, people speak in hushed voices and walk quietly, meditating the lives of ancestors who came before – and appreciating their architectural craftsmanship.

Crematoriums have never held this power, even though cremation is an increasingly common practice in Europe, with roughly 50 per cent or more people choosing it over burial. Often located on the outskirts of towns, preferring to go unnoticed, crematoriums choose to shroud their function behind non-distinct walls. We don’t know much about the process behind cremation, because it is hidden by architecture – out of sight, out of mind.

“If you had to make a hierarchy of public buildings, first you have the church, then you have the library, the theatre and so on. The crematorium is very much in the background,” says Rotterdam-based architect Vincent Panhuysen, of KAAN Architecten. Panhuysen has designed two crematoriums in Belgium in his time, one in Sint-Niklaas and most recently, Siesegem in Aalst. Both were commissioned by Belgian company Westlede, which now owns four crematoria in Belgium.

Client and architect collaborated on the design of Siesegem to ask how architecture could help the crematorium express death in a more profound way, to open up an understanding about cremation as a process, and to claim its space in society more clearly. It wasn’t about re-branding the crematorium, or emulating another typology, the questioning was about considering the typology in a deeper way.

Westlede had an enlightened view on the position of the crematorium in society, and they wanted Siegesem to be a place you could hold a concert and exhibit local art. Textured surfaces meet soft seating areas and expressive artwork by Belgian artist Rinus van de Velde on the walls. Sometimes it feels closer to a museum than a crematorium. Yet today, museums are also places that we have spiritual experiences – a moment of quiet in an empty gallery, 10 minutes gazing into a Rothko or simply guiding your hand along a bronze handrail and counting the smooth stone steps as you climb a stairway.