Crematorium, Crownhill, Milton Keynes. An homage to Louis Kahn.

February 11, 2013

The high quality of architectural and planning output during inception, birth and infancy of Milton Keynes was not accidental. Derek Walker led a gifted team of professionals working with him in MK Development Corporation and commissioned good architects of international and national repute to build housing, civic and other building types within the city.

The demise of MKDC in 1992 and subsequent political changes started to dismantle the architectural department within the Council which was supposed to take over and supervise the responsibility of completing the growth of the city.

The financial constraints and changes in house building/selling sector started a race to build to obtain biggest profits and financial savings without much regard for sensible commissioning in order to obtain the best possible architectural quality to fulfil the original goals of design and planning.

The decline in architectural standards is so overwhelming that the earlier levels of ‘acceptable/mediocre’ can now easily pass as ‘excellent’ and if anything of some merit is built, it is welcomed with disbelief and needs celebrating.

The building of Crownhill Crematorium is such an example where a series of happy coincidences led to ‘birth’ of a building dealing with the emotional issues of ‘death’.

The so called birth took place in the back seat of a taxi (assisted by the father) as it was rushing to reach hospital.

Panorama 101alt

Adrian Morrow, the young project designer with an impressive list of buildings to show against his name and a long list of first class architectural practices he has worked for, happened to be working in Architects Department during its death throes when this project arrived on his desk. The rapid population growth of the city meant that the existing crematorium built in 1982 by Roger Hobbs was unable to cope with the increased demands.

Adrian Morrow’s commitment to good architecture must have speeded his efforts to complete work on Crematorium detailed design, fighting against uncertainty of existence as Council’s architect. The new energy regulations and sustainability issues were dealt with and working drawing stage completed speedily before the inevitable ‘Project Managers’ took over the job and Council’s Architecture Department’s ‘life support’ was withdrawn and unwittingly the department became the first candidate for cremation in the new building (metaphorically  speaking of course, just like Asplund’s  in Woodland Cemetery).

The opportunity of seeing a worthwhile building in Milton Keynes after a while is too good to miss. It may not be able to withstand a direct comparison with Asplund-Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery in its scale, masterly handling of landscape and classicism of Swedish vernacular but there were lessons to be learnt.

The comparison with the other famous example of Funerary buildings, Scarpa’s Brion Family Cemetery (1968-78) would be grossly unfair at various levels but relevant when considering the experience of family and friends during emotionally traumatic occasions when the intimate internal and external spaces are able to offer solace and contemplation to affected users.

However, since the architect fairly and openly acknowledges Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum as the main inspiration for this building, a few related things are worth discussing.

MKCrem3

Like most architects of his age, Adrian Morrow knows and understands Kahn’s work, (as Charles Correa’s use of Kahn’s Trenton Bath House at Gandhi Ashram in India) chose to use Kimbell’s vocabulary of concrete vaults with flat roofs to create ‘servant and served’ spaces. A good model to follow, as judicial spacing of vaulted roofs proved flexible to cope with varying and sensitive space requirements of the brief for internal and external spaces.

The roof was originally designed before the sustainability requirements imposed rows of wind catchers. These clusters distract the eye from the simplicity of extruded vaults used by Kahn, but since the intentions are noble and a touch of ‘science fiction’ adds an extra layer of experience, I find it more than acceptable.

MKCrem2

My main disappointment lies with the way the car park sits in front of the building dominating the approach and exit for the mourners. The act of approaching the imposing entrance vault through cars looks abrupt and cluttered. Similarly the car park dominates the view as you leave the chapel using the side exit via an intimate well designed landscaped courtyard, created by parting of two vaulted roofs. The marrying of cars building and landscaped/water side walk is unresolved and to a degree lets the project down.

MKCrem1

The experience of washing your hands using the warm water in the toilets attached to the entrance vault on a cold morning was even more satisfying knowing that the source of heat for this water was provided by recent departed ‘user clients’. You can’t but say “Thank you and Thank you God for effective recycling….”

MKCrem4

Adrian Morrows web site with a video:

http://www.ajmarchitecture.com/envprojectajm.html

An excellent video showing Scarpa’s Brion Family Cemetry;

http://architechnophilia.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/carlo-scarpa-brion-tomb.html

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