Sunday, June 12, 2005

A Municipal Mausoleum?

In this week's Chicago Reader, Lynn Becker covers the contribution by John Ronan to the Visionary Chicago Architecture book and exhibition now on display (until July 15) at Millennium Park. The local architect proposes reusing the massive, 2.5 million s.f. U.S. Post Office that bridges the Eisenhower Expressway southwest of the Loop. But unlike past proposals that have tried to retrofit residential and office space into the large floor plates, Ronan's is a "municipal mausoleum" that preserves a majority of the existing structure in a suprisingly practical way.

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Ronan's Mausoleum

Becker's article illuminates the importance of cemeteries as public gathering spaces before the creation of city parks, like Lincoln Park which actually displaced graves further north. Ronan's "urban burial ground" could actually ease the burden on typical plot cemeteries; here they would be stacked 14 stories high. Becker states that "Ronan's proposal confronts a neglected but fundamental issue: how a city deals with its dead," a sentence that reminds me of Italy's "Cities of the Dead", a beautiful description for cemeteries and the like.

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Rossi's San Cataldo Cemetery

I've always thought that a City of the Dead reflects its locale's City of the Living. For example, many American cemeteries are large on acreage with plots spaced far apart and with abundant grass, resembling the country's sprawl and love of green lawns. On the other hand, Italy's cemeteries tend to be stacked densely along narrow "streets" much like the Medieval towns that dot the peninsula. Aldo Rossi's design of a cemetery in Modena fits in with Italy's historical way of burying the dead, while also veering from it (as I recall, the incomplete project was actually halted after it was discovered that it featured a crematorium, a no-no for Catholics). Rossi brings the streets of the typical cemetery indoors, in long, large spaces broken by a regular grid of columns that overwhelms the visitor in sheer numbers. Ronan's design, if realized, would be no different.

Personally, I think that Ronan's idea is brilliant, not so much in terms of the Post Office's reuse, but in the project's in-your-face presentation of Death in the heart of the City of the Living.

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