On November 29, 2017, Victoria became the first state in Australia to legalise assisted dying since the overturning of voluntary euthanasia laws in the Northern Territory in 1997. The introduction of choice into the notion of death provides the opportunity to reconsider our progression towards death as a society and encourage the creation of a new ritual of dying. As the world’s most liveable city, Melbourne has the opportunity to work alongside architects to create and re-purpose spaces which can facilitate this new ritual into the urban fabric.
Death is the last taboo in a Western society. We prefer euphemisms for the act; ‘passed on’, ‘resting in peace’, ‘departed’, rather than engaging in a truthful conversation about the inevitability which links us all as human beings. Those navigating a terminal illness often report feeling isolated in a time where their need for comfort and companionship is most crucial. Undergoing the harrowing experience of losing someone close to you can often evoke feelings of vulnerability and fear, for it is a reminder of our own mortality and the fact that we are forever inching closer to death. Our role as architects is a multifaceted one and near impossible to define, however it can be said that the common thread is our vocation to adapt to, and influence a world which is forever changing. This then suggests that we as designers have a role to play in supporting the introduction of euthanasia through the spaces which will be required to facilitate this action and inspire the evolution in attitudes towards dying which will follow.
As architects, designing for the living often takes precedence over those in their approach of death. Improvements are being made, particularly in the design palliative care centres through initiatives such as the Zen Hospice Project and the Maggies Centres. These aim to improve cancer treatment through ‘good design’ achieved by commissioning firms such as OMA, Snøhetta, and Zaha Hadid. These spaces however focus purely on those who are already within the grips of death, but what about those who are making their way towards it? There is enormous potential for designers and architects to challenge the status-quo and create spaces which normalise the ritual of dying without glossing over the reality of a terminal diagnosis.
Designing for death is already occurring in the outcome of objects to support users post death, but often these are either crudely practical or conceptual. The design of urns is becoming increasingly more popular amongst design professionals who are looking at ways of fusing the morbid task of dealing with the dead with sophisticated and palatable design outcomes which can become integrated into our way of life. ‘Souvenair’, designed by Chen Jiashan, questions why the deceased should be confined to memories and graveyards. This adaptation of the common windchime sees the ashes of a loved one poured into a metal casing which reverberates against a ring, the sound recalling the presence of the loved one when the wind blows. Tikker makes use of a questionnaire and calculation system to determine a countdown of ones estimated life expectancy, shown on the face of a watch. This aims to remind users that time is their most valuable asset and to encourage changes which can lead to the addition of more time. Aleksander Skworz designed a cremation urn which can be used as homeware until your death, acting as a daily reminder to live life to the fullest. Companies such as the Bios Incube and the Capsula Mundi project merge the ever-popular theme of sustainability with the disposal of our dead. Capsula Mundi, created by Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, uses egg shaped pods and urns created from biodegradable materials which a buried as a base of a tree chosen by family members which could see the landscape of cemeteries change drastically from the baron landscapes they are today. Bios Incube, from Bios Urn, is a biodegradable urn which intends to change notions surround death as finite and instead convert “the end of life into a transformation and a return to life through nature.”
Edging to the conceptual side of designing for dying is a death simulation machine created by designer Frank Kolkman who uses virtual reality to simulate a near death experience to challenge “death anxiety” among terminally ill hospital patients. Designs for euthanasia however, currently exist purely in the conceptual realm with the most notable (only) design appearing in the form on the Euthanasia Coaster designed by engineer Julijonas Urbonas in 2010. The roller coaster takes users down a 1,600ft, 90-degree drop before subjecting the body to 10 Gs of force while twisting through a series of loops which induces brain hypoxia (a shortage of oxygen to the brain), allowing users to experience a euphoric sensation as they die.
In my own personal thesis recently completed at the University of Melbourne, I investigated the repurposing of the iconic Melbourne tram as a mobile palliative care unit which could ferry users and their companions to a series of repurposed spaces around a modified version of the City Circle Tram route. The reflective exterior of the tram intended to encourage pedestrians and motorists to reflect on their own mortality and stimulate conversation in the public realm around an individual’s goals and views for their own death. The unifying nexus between these designs and their outcomes are their attempts to challenge the status quo, that is, the feelings of anxiety and fear which surround dying. Kolkman writes that “if we began treating our anxieties surrounding death, it might mean the process of dying could become more comfortable.”
However, for the most part these attempts at reconciling societies feelings regarding death are taking form in objects or concepts, but should we as architects be questioning whether a tangible, structural outcome could be equally successful in altering societies perception of death as they progress towards their final moments?
The obvious outcomes of these architectural inventions in death architecture in response to euthanasia laws could be seen in the design of dispensary locations, training centres for the administering of the medication and the bereavement centres for friends and families coming to grips with their loved one’s choices. There is opportunity to look into the creation of spaces which could alter the current ritual of dying and terminal illness diagnosis in partnership with the timeline stipulated by the euthanasia laws. For example, the creation of spaces such as salons and beauty parlours which accommodate preparing those in their final moments, having a specific focus on bereavement areas for staff, on site medical equipment and consideration in materiality, lighting, all while providing the retreat and renewal atmosphere which is commonly associated with a salon. Landscape design could play a role in the creation of nurseries and later graveyards as the concept of sustainable burial through the use of aforementioned biodegradable urns and burial pods becomes more mainstream. Carefully designed spaces could accommodate celebrations for all walks of life, be it weddings, parties or living wakes, which while presently a rare occurrence could be seen to be more common should members of the public be able to gain control over their death.
As our population rapidly ages and our methods of dying change, design will have an important role to play in all of the simplicities and complexities that underpin death. The act of dying should no longer be seen as a purely medical experience, for it is one that is fundamentally personal, meaningful and ritualistic above all else. As our society becomes increasingly more secular, there is an opportunity for design to fill this void and provide emotional solace in a time of fear, grief and discomfort. Alice Rawsthorn writes “the strengths and weaknesses of present systems and rituals with an open mind, and applying grace, foresight, rigour, sensitivity and imagination to [envisage] better outcomes could help us die more humanely.” While design is already succeeding in the creation of objects which accommodate post death and architecture which support those nearing death, there is a unique opportunity which is yet to be explored. Through an understanding of the current ritual of dying and the potential for a new ritual of dying as allowed by the passing of voluntary euthanasia in Victoria, architects are implored to creatively rethink spaces which will change the perception of death itself and normalise its inevitability in sphere of human nature. After all, there are no things more certain in life, than death and taxes.
Feel free to contact us with questions or feedback: