Crematorium in Basel


Rasmus Norlander

Architects Bernhard Maurer and Frédéric Garrigues from the Zurich-based Architekturbüro Garrigues Maurer GmbH won a competition in 2013 to design a crematorium close to Switzerland’s biggest cemetery.

Af Elliott Webb

The Hörnli cemetery is located not far from the center of Basel, by the border with Germany and in close proximity to the Rhine River. It lies on a small mountain called the Hörnli and has expanded greatly since its original completion in the 1930s. The Hörnli is a place of mourning and devotion, a sensitive and precisely cultivated garden and one of the busiest cemeteries in Switzerland, where graves are only kept for 20 years before being cleared for new ones. An existing order was present in its urban layout; a straight and classical geometry of built structures and graves embedded into a tended undulating landscape, satisfying the process of reflection and gathering both before and after death. Maintaining and balancing these factors with any new architectural insertion was of paramount importance.

The architects took consolation from the existing form, rationality, and clarity already present on the site without disturbing its central order. The new crematorium sites itself on the border of the pattern leftover from the existing buildings. It subordinates to these found patterns and forms part of the background for both the landscape and the personal pilgrimages to saying farewell. It facilitates a solemn ecumenical experience within the cemetery and sites itself economically with easy access to all.

The materiality of the project is characterized by an image of simultaneity, where the industrialized procedure of cremation and the emotionally fuelled procession of mourning are combined carefully within the play of a singular sequence of volumes made of concrete and familiar masonry. This concrete structure with a brick skin negotiates the rough industrial process within with a carefully laid and handmade external skin. The bricks playfully blend between stretcher-bond and hit-and-miss brickwork, wrapping the building and opening certain aspects and moments of the procession to light and air.

The external wall on approach follows the main datum of the spine of the cemetery’s layout. The building appears as an independent volume that continues the line of the existing mortuary buildings’ peak but slowly rises in height. The volumes of mass rise step by step from the lowest level of the entrance until its highest part, a freestanding chimney. This poetic sequence takes people from the dappled sky of the Hörnli garden and through a succession of spaces that begins and ends with one big open window opening towards the sky. The entry exists in the space left between the new crematory and the old mortuary building, where a revitalized entrance-court is accessible away from the road, mediating its relationship with its masonry neighbors. From there you enter an enclosed yet porous entry court, which delivers an intimate, semi-public space only available on the approach of the respective mourners visiting the crematorium.

Within the entry court, you begin to understand how the external bricks’ variegation allows the garden to be visible whilst secluding the mourner and their individual pilgrimage. This entry court is the beginning of where the external brickwork becomes porous and the space is open to the sky, giving the feeling of a private but maintained a connection to the outside garden. It then moves internally to a more cavernous hall where the brick interior reads solid to the height of the entrance court wall outside. It is here, in the perceived solidity of this floor, where the individual crematory furnaces sit flush with the floor.

Despite the sensation of a more contained or cavernous space in the visitors’ room and furnace chamber, where a farewell of the body into the furnace is enacted, the stepped layers of bricks blend to the sky creating a gradient of dark to light, urging the individuals to look up. At the height of this gradient and at the lineal termination of the long entry sequence is a large framed window, breaking the porous skin. This upper part of this volume’s materiality and the single window continuously shine light and delivers an element of nature and solace embodied by a traditional burial. From here guests can be led to the rooftop garden, a place of reflection where the final volume of the furnace chimney can be watched and read as a stoic object in nature; this finalizes the mourning process in the beautiful grounds of the Hörnli.

The success of the new crematorium is seen through its intentional subordination to the existing order and qualities of the cemetery. It is delivered by a refined sequence of spaces moving from an external entry court to the furnace chamber. This sequence is mimicked by a volumetric development in height and is tempered by a clever play of the external brickwork. The new crematorium creates an ecumenical experience with a clear intention to respectfully guide the mourner through the industrialized process of cremation whilst staying connected to the natural presence of the Hörnli.