The 16-acre extension of United Synagogue’s cemetery in Bushey, northwest of London in the city’s surrounding Green Belt, won a prestigious architecture prize in November 2017, the award for best completed religious building presented at the World Architecture Festival.
The Guardian newspaper runs a lengthy, and very positive, review of the new cemetery — a £6 million project that adds space for 17,000 more burials and took around a decade to develop and complete. It was consecrated in May 2017 by Britain’s chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and should accommodate burials for the next 50 years.
Waugh Thistleton Architects, which designed the new cemetery, used solid rammed earth construction to build two prayer halls. There are also offices and a mortuary, as well as separate rooms for Cohanim. The firm described this as “an ancient building method that is at once natural and sustainable and durable and strong.”
Connected by a cloistered timber colonnade, the earthen prayer halls are lined in English Oak, with sections of the rammed earth left exposed in the ceremonial spaces. Corten steel doors complement the natural material palette, and the calm internal environments are accentuated with subtle, low lighting.
It said, “The earth was mixed with limestone, sand, cement and water to form the rammed earth to build the prayer halls. Imposing monolithic structures which create a modest, calm and contemplative environment.”
Watch time-lapse video of the construction of the rammed-earth walls of the prayer halls:
The prayer halls are simple, almost stark, structures with clean angles, set amid landscaping that includes trees, slopes, and a linear reed bed park, including ponds and other water features.
In his review in the Guardian, Rowan Moore writes that “it is the rammed-earth construction – whereby mud scraped up in remodelling the surrounding landscape was mixed with sand and gravel and then compressed into walls half-a-metre thick to make the cemetery’s ceremonial buildings – that gives it its character. […] its combinations of mud, wood and steel, of raw and cooked materials, of open and closed structures work together to create, as intended, a supportive background to the rituals of loss.”
It’s hard to find many cemeteries this thoughtful in their design, which is strange, as architecture has always had a debt to eternity, or at least mortality. Since buildings tend to outlive humans, they have a particular role in giving shape to the emotions of death. And since it is the longer-lasting buildings that make it into architectural histories, our view of what architecture should be it is tilted towards the commemorative – pyramids, tombs, temples, churches, cenotaphs. […] Bushey gives an example of what can be done.
In his review, Moore also notes the inspiring architecture of several other modern cemeteries, in Sweden, Italy, and Spain.