Metropolitan cemeteries are rapidly running out of space, but the new extension to Melbourne General Cemetery, the city’s first modern burial site, looks nothing like a panic or a quick fix.
Metropolitan cemeteries are rapidly running out of space, but the new extension to Melbourne General Cemetery, the city’s first modern burial site, looks nothing like a panic or a quick fix. The Parisian-modelled cemetery has been periodically closed and reshuffled in response to growing numbers of interments, now over half a million, since its establishment in the boom years of the 1850s. The entrance was shifted in the 1930s to open up new acreage; last year, the new entrance was itself reorganised to make room for a new mausoleum.
The Harmer Architecture designed mausoleum allowed an awkward space behind the historic gatehouse to be opened up, its high fences and public toilet pulled down. The brief from the trustees of the necropolis required the maximum return possible within the constraints of the site and those of the heritage authorities. While it’s a squeeze, the structure is an effortless composition. To the south, the mausoleum was joined to the gatehouse by a glazed gallery, slotting in just under the gatehouse’s two storey roof line. Along the same alignment, three double-sided walls were built to demarcate a sequence of galleries for the crypts. The seemingly solid base, built in sympathy with the gatehouse using concrete, granite and brick, is in fact a hollow network of passageways, looking east to the cemetery landscape and west to Princess Park. A fan shaped roof, tapering in as Princess Park Drive bulges against the site, floats above.
The imperative in mausoleum buildings is permanence and minimal maintenance, as the cemetery management is entrusted to maintain the building in perpetuity. This is also a symbolic imperative, with the human desire to mark the passing of another with an inviolable, monumental shell. The crypts are constructed using modular formwork, creating six hundred and eighteen in situ concrete plots of a common dimension. The roof, supported by the crypt cores, is a light steel framework. But this strong simplicity of structure is infused with a suite of fine architectural details and finishes, to play weight against weightlessness, and light against dark. The surfaces within the crypt galleries are smooth, with the memorial shutters or crypt doors finished in polished and honed granite; the fan roof, in contrast, is corrugated, a pattern picked up by custom three-dimensional brickwork on the side walls, and the irregularly assembled bluestone paving. Copper shingles add a subdued luminosity to the roof.
Light is deftly managed. The plywood-lined roof is cut through with irregular pendant-shaped skylights. A cross of coloured glass, designed by Harmer and Andrew Ferguson from Stained Glass Art, is pieced together using artists’ stocks of old and recycled fragments. In the glazed gallery against the gatehouse wall, known as the Blessed Mary MacKillop Gallery, seraphic glass is patterned with small crosses, which throw shadows on the paving stones below. The only electronic lighting is purely for security purposes. Black stainless steel mesh gates close off the ends of the galleries at night.
Several different schemes for the development, sensitive as it was, were submitted during the design phase, the outcome being refined through a series of meetings with all interested parties, including Heritage Victoria, the National Trust and Melbourne City Council Planning and Urban Design departments. Built above all for the Italian community who favour this form of burial, the mausoleum skilfully opens up a new prominent location for relatives to remember their dead, in an era when space is at a premium and design is often an afterthought. Harmer Architecture has created three other mausoleums, a funeral parlour and several chapels in recent years in their characteristically buoyant form of vernacular modernism, and received a RAIA Award for the Gatehouse Mausoleum in the Institutional Alterations and Extensions category. +
Previous. The Blessed Mary MacKillop Gallery, tucking under the gatehouse’s roofline. A crucifix pattern is cut into the translucent coating of the glazed roof and is thrown into relief against the ground and gatehouse wall.