»Less is a bore.«

Robert Venturi

Blog Building of the Week

A View to A Hill

Gubbio Cemetery Extension by Andrea Dragoni

  • A view to a hill, past a site-specific installation by artist Sauro Cardinali and Nicola Renzi. (All photos Alessandrea Chemollo, unless otherwise stated) 1 / 22  A view to a hill, past a site-specific installation by artist Sauro Cardinali and Nicola Renzi. (All photos Alessandrea Chemollo, unless otherwise stated)
  • The sharply defined cubic shapes of Andrea Dragoni’s Gubbio Cemetery. 2 / 22  The sharply defined cubic shapes of Andrea Dragoni’s Gubbio Cemetery.
  • This cemetery is characterised by heavy symmetry... 3 / 22  This cemetery is characterised by heavy symmetry...
  • ...and a strict linearity... 4 / 22  ...and a strict linearity...
  • ...in contrast to the natural landscape of the surrounding mountains. 5 / 22  ...in contrast to the natural landscape of the surrounding mountains.
  • Locally sourced travertine is used as the main cladding. (Photo: Massimo Marini) 6 / 22  Locally sourced travertine is used as the main cladding. (Photo: Massimo Marini)
  • Large windows... 7 / 22  Large windows...
  • ...and offset sections of wall provide some relief from the rigid austerity of the design. 8 / 22  ...and offset sections of wall provide some relief from the rigid austerity of the design.
  • Inside the cubic blocks are shelves for holding funerary urns. (Photo: Massimo Marini) 9 / 22  Inside the cubic blocks are shelves for holding funerary urns. (Photo: Massimo Marini)
  • City of the Dead? 10 / 22  City of the Dead?
  • Not exactly: a view into one of the “squares of silence”... 11 / 22  Not exactly: a view into one of the “squares of silence”...
  • ...which are used for showing art against their fair-faced concrete walls... 12 / 22  ...which are used for showing art against their fair-faced concrete walls...
  • ...and floors. 13 / 22  ...and floors.
  • In each square, there is a “window to the sky” in the roof for contemplating eternity. 14 / 22  In each square, there is a “window to the sky” in the roof for contemplating eternity.
  • Plan of Gubbio, one of the oldest towns in Umbria at the foor of the Appenines, with the site of the cemetery to the right. 15 / 22  Plan of Gubbio, one of the oldest towns in Umbria at the foor of the Appenines, with the site of the cemetery to the right.
  • Plan showing the cemetery, which also nestles against the lower slopes of Monte Igino. 16 / 22  Plan showing the cemetery, which also nestles against the lower slopes of Monte Igino.
  • Plan, sections and elevations of the Gubbio Cemetery extension. (Image: Andrea Dragoni) 17 / 22  Plan, sections and elevations of the Gubbio Cemetery extension. (Image: Andrea Dragoni)
  • Model of the Gubbio Cemetery, showing the higher empty “squares of silence”. (Image: Andrea Dragoni) 18 / 22  Model of the Gubbio Cemetery, showing the higher empty “squares of silence”. (Image: Andrea Dragoni)
  • Andrea Dragoni's sketched plan for the site. (All sketches: Andrea Dragoni) 19 / 22  Andrea Dragoni's sketched plan for the site. (All sketches: Andrea Dragoni)
  • Andrea Dragoni's sketch showing the cemetery set against the landscape. 20 / 22  Andrea Dragoni's sketch showing the cemetery set against the landscape.
  • Sketch of the “window to the sky” concept. 21 / 22  Sketch of the “window to the sky” concept.
  • A view back to the city of the living from the city of the dead. (Photo: Massimo Marini) 22 / 22  A view back to the city of the living from the city of the dead. (Photo: Massimo Marini)

This recent extension to a cemetery in Italy picks up its austere bold massing from its nineteenth century predecessor while also echoing the texture and sensibility of Gubbio, the mediaeval town it serves. But, as Florian Heilmeyer reports, rather than being just a parallel “city of the dead”, this cemetery incorporates spaces that can be used not just for contemplation, but on occasion for exhibitions and even accommodating parades, linking it back to the everyday life of the city.

Picturesquely spread over the lower slopes of Monte Ingino at the foot of the Apennines, Gubbio is one of the oldest towns in Umbria dating back to the Bronze Age. Most of its historic buildings have survived the centuries without major harm, with many laid out in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries lending the “old town” an austere mediaeval appearance of narrow streets with predominantly Gothic houses of dark grey stone, many leaning awry.

The cemetery of Gubbio, lying slightly east of the centre, is usually not listed as one of its most important attractions. Yet it should be. Its spartan, austere structure with many monuments dating back to the nineteenth century, is said to have been influenced by the French architect Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand and his ideas of a clear and sober, thus timeless and functional, architecture. Against the green-grey mountain slopes, the strictly linear and symmetrical heaviness of the Gubbio cemetery appears as counterpoint to nature’s chaos.

When Perugia-based architect Andrea Dragoni was commissioned to design the cemetery’s extension, he decided to continue the existing, rigid structure. Within an enclosure of existing brick walls, he placed a series of sharply defined cubic blocks, clad in heavy plates of local travertine. Long axes open views down towards the surrounding brick walls and out to the mountain beyond, while narrow paths lead past and through these blocks, stacked inside of which are shelves to take the funerary urns. Here, visitors are alone with just walls, silence and the hills and sky beyond. Together these elements clearly resemble Gubbio’s mediaeval city structure, yet this is a city for the dead, for silence, devotions, and the mourning of the bereaved. Atmospherically, this extension has a sense of the archaic.

City of the Dead?

However set inside this city of the dead, Dragoni surprises us with an almost cheerful element. Four square, empty, courtyards form “squares of silence”, with walls of fair-faced concrete, providing places for visitors to pause, reflect and whisper with each other. All of them are identically accessed by four narrow passages, one in each wall, and a concrete roof that gets thinner towards a square hole punched at the centre, acting as a “window to the sky” – Dragoni makes no secret out of the inspiration he drew here from James Turrell’s “Skyspaces”. Each courtyard also features a site-specific installation by local artists Sauro Cardinali and Nicola Renzi.
 
These are meant to be used as truly hybrid spaces: like public squares in the city of the dead, their concrete roofs framing the sky for a moment of silent meditation. Yet at the same time they can be used as public exhibition spaces, which could contribute to the current attempts to revitalise the Gubbio Arts Biennial which up to the 1970s was one of the most important cultural events in the region. Or they could even be used during the festive parade of the annual city festival, incorporating the cemetery into its route. A lively parade or an exhibition of contemporary art to be held on such a sacred site? It would be worth a try. Then the city of the dead and the city of the living would have a meeting point, at least every once in a while.

– Florian Heilmeyer


andreadragoni.it

For more on a cemetery tip, please read uncube’scurrent issue no. 38: Death.

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