Nearly every funeral I’ve ever been to has taken place in the municipal crematorium of Southampton, a medium-sized port on the south coast of England, the city where I grew up. Southampton Crematorium was designed in the late 1960s by the City Architect, Leon Berger (1908-81), in the days when almost every aspect of urban life was being provided for by the City Architects Department. The two parks that I most liked to play in as a child, Riverside Park and Mayflower Park, were both laid out by Berger’s department on odd bits of disused industrial land. They’d built ten or so housing estates, which ranged from melodramatic clusters of towers commanding views over the sea at Weston Shore, to the wan garden suburb at Millbrook. They’d designed the secondary school I went to, the doctors’ surgeries and the polytechnic, and they’d added public walkways across the medieval walls.
They’d also designed a snazzy concrete park bench, which was and is marketed worldwide as the “Southampton Bench”. Catering for every part of your life eventually meant, of course, catering for your death, and providing a cheap and unpretentious place for your lifeless remains to be incinerated.
Southampton Crematorium is in a secluded place on the northern edges of the city, where the dense, wild Southampton Common spreads itself out and starts to become actual countryside, or at least until the M27 spoils the illusion. In fact, the crematorium is conveniently just off the motorway, like a Little Chef service station café. But when you get there, the illusion of being secluded by woodlands is rather convincing.
I′ve never been there in anything other than autumn or winter, so it is fixed for me as a place of damp leaves, bare trees, fog. Car parks are set around two “chapels”, although the services can be as secular as you want them to be. Each chapel is a large, rectangular volume, each clad in copper.
The style of these heavy volumes, sheathed in sheets of green-gold-black metal, is similar to some more celebrated buildings that are contemporary with them, such as the churches of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia or, closer to home, Basil Spence’s Nuffield Theatre at the University of Southampton. It’s a way of suggesting the richness of traditional church materials without actually using them or copying them, but in this verdant setting, it gives the effect of organic things rotting, left to decay.
Between these asymmetrically proportioned chapels are the two crematorium chimneys, a functional necessity, which can be covered up if you’re feeling shy about the building’s function, but here, the architects have refused to do so. They’re tall, square, and clad in yellow stock brick. Below, some ivy has grown across the low entrance pavilions.
It’s the interior where the real harshness of the building is apparent. I am an advocate of the Southampton City Council Architects Department. I once dedicated a book to them. I think their work, at its best (the Northam Estate, just off the river Itchen, for instance), is among the most sensitive and intelligent housing built in Britain after the Second World War. It is light, clever, optimistic and airy architecture, reflecting Berger’s training as an enthusiastic young modernist in 1930s Liverpool. So I’m disposed to appreciate this work. The minimalism of the crematorium, though, is extreme, however much it might seem like a pretty normal, standard municipal product.
Although the building is totally non-denominational – you can cremate and “celebrate the life of” anyone from any faith here – it’s hard to imagine a building more Protestant. No frills, no nonsense, not even a little reassuring stained glass, as you might find in more famous modernist crematoria by Basil Spence (Mortonhall, Edinburgh) or Maxwell Fry (Coychurch, Bridgend). Bare brick, bare wood, bare concrete.
Owen Hatherley is a writer and journalist based in London who writes on architecture, politics and culture. His first book Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009), was a defense of the modernist movement, reclaiming its revolutionary credentials. Subsequent books have included A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010), Uncommon (Zero, 2011), a book on the pop group Pulp, A New Kind of Bleak (Verso, 2012), and Across the Plaza (Strelka, 2012). His most recent book is: Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings, published in June 2015 by Allen Lane. He writes regularly for Architects’ Journal, the Architectural Review, Icon, the Guardian and New Humanist, and has authored several blogs including Sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy (2005-2010).