THE WOODLAND CEMETERY
This research critiques modernist, secular readings of the Woodland Cemetery through an analysis of its pathways and landmarks, exploring Christian symbolism in its architecture and landscape.
Skogskyrkogårde in Stockholm, Sweden, or the Woodland Cemetery, is renowned in 20th century modernism for its sensitive, striking treatment of architecture and landscape. The cemetery’s architects, Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, collaborated for decades on various aspects of the cemetery design—working jointly on most of the landscape and independently on individual chapels. The Modernist movement and its Bauhaus forerunners largely ignored the subject of landscape, thus making Woodland Cemetery remarkable in its disciplinary context. However, the most essential thing about the cemetery is not its historic significance, but the experience it provides of journeying through a landscape laden with meaning. Many scholars interpret the Woodland Cemetery site as a sequenced place that facilitates mourning through a reliance on the primal landscape or pagan precedents rather than on the symbolism of Christian tradition. Nevertheless, there seems to be a disconnect between this contemporary interpretation and the cemetery’s actual thematic and symbolic content not to mention the stated intentions of the cemetery’s founders and designers. In this paper, I will analyze the project’s first sequence, the Way of the Cross, to explore this disconnect and substantiate an understanding of the cemetery as a biblical landscape—a symbolic narrative of the Resurrection.
Late Modern and contemporary critical readings of the cemetery have cast the project’s conceptual origins and symbolic meanings in various lights that eschew biblical tradition. Caroline Constant, the most prominent Western scholar of the cemetery, argues that “the architects relied primarily on attributes of the landscape—hill and valley, earth and sky, forest and clearing, meadow and marsh—to invoke associates of death and rebirth in a landscape of psychic dimensions”, thus “transcending any dependence on traditional Christian iconography” (Caroline Constant, “Toward a Spiritual Landscape”, The Modern Architectural Landscape, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), pp. 77). Similarly, she posits that the cemetery’s “resonance of meaning arises from its appeal to the emotional impact of death rather than through recourse to external symbolism” (Constant, pp. 82). Elsewhere, Stuart Wrede claims that “Asplund and Lewerentz’s sources were not high architecture or landscape planning, but rather medieval and ancient Nordic vernacular burial archetypes” (Stuart Wrede, “Landscape and Architecture: the Work of Erik Gunnar Asplund”, Perspecta, The Yale Architectural Journal Vol. 20, (1983), pp. 197). His pagan interpretation observes that “the great grass-covered knoll resembles both the ancient burial mounds that dot northern Europe and a great earthen breast” (Wrede, Stuart. The Architecture of Erik Gunnar Asplund. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1980. pp. 32, 204.). These views that the cemetery’s meaning derives from ancient precedents or the ritualized experience of a landscape imbued with a generic spirituality do acknowledge the use of Christian symbols in the project but deny their centrality.
These views that the cemetery’s meaning derives from ancient precedents or the ritualized experience of a landscape imbued with a generic spirituality do acknowledge the use of Christian symbols in the project but deny their centrality.
An alternative reading of the cemetery is as a biblical landscape—its sequences charged with a traditionally Christian narrative of resurrection. Mark Treib observes that “the number and variety of Asplund’s studies reveal that he searched for a landscape design that would not only suit the building architecturally but also embody the narrative that would inform the entire cemetery: the theme of resurrection…. that path—from darkness to light, from death to resurrection—would serve as the conceptual structure for almost every element of the cemetery landscape and its architecture during the quarter century of its design” (Treib, Mark. “Constructing Significance”, Landscape Australia 1 (1994), pp. 30). The ‘path’ and ‘structure’ that Treib refers to is the especially poignant and unique spatial experience of entering dark, compressed areas and emerging into bright, open clearings. This occurs at both architectural and site level scales within the cemetery, and was conceived as a way to guide a mourner through their grief and into peace, incarnating the hope of the resurrection, after death, into a spatial experience. Similarly, Vaughan Hart challenges the prevalent secular reading of the landscape by exhaustively analyzing one major sequence of the cemetery—the Way of the Seven Wells—which culminates at the Chapel of the Resurrection. In Sigurd Lewerentz and the Half-Open Door, he unearths a great deal of evidence that supports a biblical interpretation, such as specific changes made in the cemetery design to clarify a resurrection-focused reading of the cemetery. For example, the architects relocated the main chapel of the Holy Cross in the plan of 1932 from a position straddling the entrance pathway to stand on the path’s eastern boundary, “a move which enhanced the role of the chapel of the Resurrection as the final (and most important) event in a sequence of landscape elements” (Vaughan Hart, “Sigurd Lewerentz and the ‘Half-Open Door”, Architectural History Vol. 39 (1996), pp. 186). However, a complete analysis of Woodland Cemetery requires an examination of the cemetery’s other main sequence—the Way of the Cross. This analysis, however, should be prefaced with a discussion of the project’s founding context.
Asplund and Lewerentz originally conceived of Woodland Cemetery as a competition scheme in response to a 1915 RFP for a new cremation-based cemetery. This took place against the backdrop of a burgeoning cremation movement in Europe during the early 20th century. Because traditional urban cemeteries were becoming overcrowded, the risk of spreading disease led reformers to present cremation as a clean, hygienic solution. Some scholars note this scientific impetus in their research, but have gone on to ascribe the beginnings of the cremation movement to a growing secularism and social shift away from traditional religion. However, evidence exists to the contrary—that in fact, the movement largely advocated for a more healthy and symbolically pure method for society to lay their dead to rest. Eva Åhrén notes that “when cremationists advocated their cause, the argument they used most frequently was that cremation was greatly preferable to interment from a hygienic point of view” or else they “made reference to the purity or cleanliness of cremation [which] was also significant on a symbolic level” (Åhrén, Eva. Death, Modernity, and the Body: Sweden 1870-1940. pp. 129). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester, 2009, pp. 129). What’s more, a brief look into the Swedish Cremation Society’s journal reveals that, quite far from being irreligious, the cremation movement had strong Christian underpinnings. Under the heading Statements about Cremation, celebrated poet Verner von Heidenstam published “A Prayer before the Flames” which analogizes cremation flames with the Holy Spirit, whereas another cremation poem explicitly describes the resurrection--“my remains, which are burned to ash, shall one day rise again” (Åhrén, pp. 129). These were published under the auspices of Gustav Schylter, the president of the cremation movement and the primary instigator and financier of Woodland Cemetery. Caroline Constant interprets Gustav Schylter’s motto for the Cremation Society, “To death—to life,” as a maxim that aims to “renew attitudes toward life”—in the sense of present life rather than afterlife (Constant, pp. 16). But in context, Schylter’s motto seems to be both an affirmation of life on earth as well as a simple assurance of the movement’s foundational belief in the Christian resurrection. It is important to note the strong symbolic, resurrection-focus of the Swedish cremationists, since it was this movement that sparked Asplund and Lewerentz’s submission for the Woodland Cemetery.
At all scales in Woodland Cemetery, nature and man are intertwined through architecture and landscape, which is not surprising given the fundamental tenet of Christian theology that resurrection entails not only the raising of the human dead but the restoration of all creation, including the earth itself.
With this context in mind, we return to our analysis of the cemetery and the strategies therein that Asplund and Lewerentz employ to create a landscape that points to resurrection. One strategy is the preservation of nature, evidenced most prominently in the site which originally consisted of a pine forest and large clearings containing gravel pits. Asplund and Lewerentz’s competition scheme, entitled ‘Tallum’ (a made up word from tall meaning pine tree and Tallom, a villa in Stocksund designed by Lars Israel Wahlman) was unique among the entries for its retaining of the pine forest. The strategy of preservation also manifests itself in the relationship between architecture and nature (Treib, pp. 29-30). Within the cemetery, the chapel of the Holy Cross stands in balance with the meditation grove, defers to it, and mirrors it—the columns of the portico reflect the trees of the grove. Designated ceremonial areas between the grove and the crematorium are outside—indistinguishable from the rest of the lawn—and reference early Christians, who in Sweden sometimes preached out in the open (Andrew Clayden and Jan Woudstra, “Some European approaches to twentieth-century cemetery design: continental solutions for British dilemmas”, Mortality Vol. 8 No. 2 (2003). pp. 193). Garden courtyards penetrate the Faith, Hope, and the Holy Cross chapels in efforts to preserve connections with nature in the interior of the crematorium complex. Even in the details, the path leading to the crematorium consists of stones spread apart without mortar joints, allowing the grass to filter through. At all scales in Woodland Cemetery, nature and man are intertwined through architecture and landscape, which is not surprising given the fundamental tenet of Christian theology that resurrection entails not only the raising of the human dead but the restoration of all creation, including the earth itself.
Another strategy employed by the architects is that of revelation through compression and expansion, which occurs not only in the Way of the Seven Wells, but also in the Way of the Cross. The entry to the cemetery stands outside the cemetery’s stone enclosure and leads to a narrow, shaded pathway. Visitors immediately experience the conceptual motif of darkness to light, grief to hope, death to life at this point, where the pathway opens up through the trees to a vast space. There is a “monumental sweep” (Wrede, pp. 205) to this vista, which contains three constructed elements: the chapel of the Holy Cross, a large stone cross, and a hill named The Grove of Remembrance. The panorama is hedged to the left by a stone wall, along which the path runs. It leads, in the distance, to the side of the chapel’s (also a crematorium) open portico. The cross, a focal point of this composition, stands just before and to the right of this portico, and from it the site gently slopes up into the landform of the grove-hill. The broad horizon delineates the meadow from the heavens, creating a tableau so expansive that the sky seems to become a dome. Clayden and Woudstra point out that “there is no clutter of gravestones, and one arrives at a clean, serene scene, the purpose of which is contemplative”, achieved through the architects’ “sense of proportion and weighting” (Clayden & Woudstra, pp. 193). Together, these elements create a profound scene of both tranquility and religious awe—paralleling the point of transition from death to life and the accompanying sense of revelation.
Together, these elements create a profound scene of both tranquility and religious awe—paralleling the point of transition from death to life and the accompanying sense of revelation.
Asplund and Lewerentz rely on screening as a third strategy. Walking along the path, one passes two smaller chapels, Faith and Hope, connected to the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Together, the three chapels form a modulated sequence—their scale gradually increasing in tune with the gentle slope. Their forecourts open onto the landscape, and lead to secluded gardens which provide mourners with privacy. These small chapels screen the main body of the crematorium from the approach. Walking onwards, the vision of the main chapel and its portico finally widens as you approach it off-axis and reach the monumental cross. This cross, erected in 1940 soon before Asplund’s death, realized Lewerentz’s competition drawing of 1915 and Asplund’s wooden cross in his 1932 proposal (Hart, pp. 181). At the cross, the open field of the lawn begins to constrict between the spatial channel of the monument and the wall. Besides the cross, one can now see the ceremonial area and reflecting pool, situated between the grove and the portico of the chapel, but shielded behind a gentle slope in order to prevent its intrusion into the formerly described vista (Treib, pp. 30). This screening strategy, designed to withhold certain elements from view until a specific point is reached, recurs often throughout the Woodland cemetery, both in its landscape and architecture. It symbolizes the Christian belief in the incompleteness of human vision and understanding until life after death: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12, King James Bible).
The chapel of the Holy Cross, which abuts the Way of the Cross path with deference, culminates the sequence. The first space of the chapel is the portico, and within it, one element dominates: an expressionist sculpture set and illuminated within the portico’s oculus, entitled The Resurrection, by John Lundqvist. Though the portico appears to be in normal alignment with the axis of the chapel, it is actually shifted off-center so that the resurrection monument takes centrality (Constant, pp. 90, 91). Here in the portico, a fourth strategy comes into play—light streams from above, directing the eyes heavenward. At the same time, Lundqvist’s monument to the resurrection is “thrusting upwards through an open atrium that provides both illumination and a hint of the impending resurrection” while “lamps are also directed upward” (Treib pp. 31). Asplund reinforces the theme of resurrection through luminance, repeating this device in the main chapel sanctuary through unique clerestories which lift the ceiling from the walls. Elsewhere in the cemetery, the pure, white dome and oculus in Asplund’s Woodland chapel cause a mourner’s “eyes [to] turn involuntarily upward from the body and from the earth toward the skies, and toward light.” (Treib, pp. 30) The brilliant illumination in Lewerentz’s chapel of the Resurrection elicits a similar response.
The route through the chapel of the Holy Cross and crematorium could be considered as a sub-sequence within The Way of the Cross—the point at which the narrative of the landscape inflects to an architectural and more human, scale. The mourner will again pass through a sequence of increasingly-scaled spaces, and emerge from the chapel to the portico, from the portico to the lawn—their eyes focused on the symbolic hill the ‘Grove of Remembrance’. Though the Way of the Cross culminates at the portico of the crematorium, the path does not terminate here. It leads upwards, causing ascension—the fifth strategy used to symbolize the resurrection. This is an epilogue to the Way of the Cross, where mourners rise up to reflect on their departed. The slope eases as one ascends, promoting an inward peace when the mourner arrives at the top—wherein a seating area is enclosed by a low wall and weeping elms. While the cemetery’s landscape is an intensely powerful image upon arrival at the ground, here upon the hill the impression is one of tranquilly layered planes. (Wrede, pp. 210).
In light of this evidence—spatial experience, architecture, landscape, and art—the [cemetery's] sequence is clearly seen as biblically symbolic; it is a spatial narrative communicating the theme of resurrection.
In addition to these five architectural and site strategies, there are numerous other characteristics and symbols within the cemetery that qualify it as, in Asplund’s own words, “a biblical landscape” (Asplund, Erik Gunnar. ‘Krematoriebygget’ (trans. ‘The Crematorium Building) Byggmastaren (1940), pg. 248). Firstly, the principal elements of the Way of the Cross—the main chapel (of the Holy Cross), the cross, and the hill (grove of Remembrance), “have an obvious source in the Bible, and the [in] the story of Christ’s final days on earth. For according to scripture, Christ was crucified on the hill called Golgotha” (Hart, pp. 186). Second, Asplund and Lewerentz’s original competition submission was rife with biblical references, such as the “numerological and scriptural significance of the number seven… in its sequence of seven gardens, seven wells, seven terraces, and seven clearings” (Constant, pp. 41). It would be impossible to enumerate here every instance of symbolic art and ornament in the cemetery that celebrates the resurrection. Within the boundaries of the Way of the Cross, significant examples (not counting the cross and resurrection monument) include the room-sized mural Life-Death-Life by Sven Xet Erixson, located in the chapel sanctuary, and the relief-work on the chapel doors of Faith and Hope.
In light of this evidence—spatial experience, architecture, landscape, and art—the sequence is clearly seen as biblically symbolic; it is a spatial narrative communicating the theme of resurrection. Other interpretations, like Constant’s and Wrede’s which diminish the force of the biblical narrative, abound—and rightly so, for any work of architecture is open to interpretation. The cemetery’s landscape is indeed powerful, imbued with a sacred aura by nature of its program and stillness of the site. Visitors of diverse views can appreciate and experience the meaning of the landscape without being aware of, or agreeing with, the particular interpretation espoused here. Just by reading the landscape as something ineffably spiritual in itself, one can feel moved—even uplifted—and be made to introspect and find meaning. However, the Christian interpretation is hard to deny in the presence of so many signposts to the Resurrection. Considering these many recurring physical and spatial symbols, the interpretation is clear, and for those who mourn, it offers a more certain and defined assurance than otherwise, of seeing their loved one again on the last day--for "...everyone who seeth the Son and believeth in Him may have everlasting life, and I will raise him up at the Last Day” (John 6:40, King James Bible).
I. Holy Spirit, thee I pray.
Fire and vict’ry song Thy name,
spirit of trial and tribulation,
a light o’er tears and death forlorn,
burn to ash our human form!
In Thy eternal flames I place
From death, in prayer, my embrace.
II. My remains, which are burned to ash,
shall one day rise again.
Human, by the name you’re known,
shall your Jesus call you then.
The body, cleans’ed by the flames,
the soul, fallen in its battle
against the sin of all the earth, is united
With a Spirit, good and mild.
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