Ílhavo Cemetery Toilet
A toilet in a cemetery might not seem like an object of architectural merit or an appealing project for an architect… neither for the brief nor the place, and never for the budget.
Af Elliott Webb
For Ricardo and Sofia Senos of M2.Senos Architects, there was an element of excitement at the opportunity to rehabilitate the toilets with an eye to a more thoughtful and exciting outcome.
The cemetery, like many others, had aggregated a certain hierarchy over time; a certain order and essence had been created through the gridded array of ornamental and symbolic objects. The hierarchies and order at the Ílhavo cemetery are visible and distinct. There are the streets, the paths and the square that dissect the land and leave room for the objects of ornament and symbol: the church, the gravestones, trees, and flowerbeds.
Beyond one’s own personal pilgrimage to the cemetery’s church and grounds, the existing facility (before M2.sensos’s intervention) sat as a sacrilegious addition to the church. Lacking a unique singular gesture to any other built form, the facility was large and contextually wrong. Its vast flat roofs almost touched the church from the south entrance of the cemetery, and the array of disjointed forms blocked the silhouette of the exquisitely tiled church it turned its back to. The thick white porticoes provided shade from the toilet to the church, but its unusual junction was a disruption to the order and beauty of the separated objects in the cemetery.
The great gesture of this project was to summarise the information that the site held and reduce it to a singular ornament-object. M2.senos explain that it was ‘an abstract exercise to create an abstract object: no doors, no windows, no sheds or porches.’ Within the order and visual hierarchy of the cemetery, the church, gravestones, and mausoleums all possess a duality of acting as both monument and place of internment and remain their own object. The new object — toilet facilities — is instead now more related to the natural elements and less with the constructed ones, and it highlights the adjacent church.
This new uniform and neutral object was reduced in size, moved away from the church, and sited as a simple archetypal form. Instead of having a raised platform with differing stone flooring to that of the rest of the cemetery, the new surroundings of the toilets were matched to stitch itself back to the walkways of the cemetery. M2.Senos said the ‘idea of using a ceramic tile coating came naturally… and it was evident: the ceramic tiles had to be green’– relating contextually to the natural elements of the cemetery. However, certain existing architectural details of the surrounding buildings were given back to the design of the toilets. The stone footing at the base of the church was reflected back onto the rich green façade, giving a visual cue that is reflected throughout the cemetery both from the church and the height of the tombs and hedging. Marble washbasins match the surroundings’ stone objects, and the all-encompassing tiled exterior of the building enhances its singularity and neutrality.
The entrances are through two extracted masses on the north and south faces of the building. On the south side is the new entrance to the facilities for cemetery staff, which responds to the back-of-house-like quality of the space between the church and the toilets. The north entrance is subtly raised from the landscape and faces the public realm. Its entrance, slit into the building, opens up to the angle of the main entrance through the car park. Pedestrians are directed within to a central space filled with natural light. The space behaves like a pinwheel and becomes the pivotal area of the building, where there are washbasins integrating the female, accessible and male facilities.
An important element of the building is that it is without technology; it ages and uses the natural elements of the site. It uses the wind through its north-south orientation and high truss roof to dehumidify and temper the air. The pre-existing walls were kept and used to support a timber roof truss with a white glaze. The all-white interior is naturally lit through varying aperture skylights in the ceiling, creating a luminous tempered light and a sensation of natural comfort.
All of these delicate design moves — the site form, arrival, materials and the color of the tiled exterior — lend themselves back ‘to the hierarchical network of the cemetery’. The toilet facility has become a meaningful object that sites itself thoughtfully in the narrative and unique arrangement of the cemetery. Unfazed by an undesirable project brief, a difficult site, and a tight budget, the team at M2.sensos and the local workers of the São Salvador Parish Council worked incredibly hard for such a refined outcome. This project complements the cemetery’s distinct environment and answers the question of ‘where is the toilet, please?’ with a beautifully simple, tiled building descriptively embedded in its surroundings.