Banality of Death


Jesse Verdoes

‘If we were to come across a mound in the woods, six foot long by three foot wide, with the soil piled up in a pyramid, a somber mood would come over us and a voice inside us would say, “There is someone buried here.”
That is architecture.’ [21] 21 - Adolf Loos, ‘Someone Is Buried Here: Adolf Loos on Architecture and Death’ (Vienna: Neue Freie Presse, 1910), p. 8.

In his article about architecture and death, Adolf Loos presents the capacity of architecture to communicate.[22] 22 - Adolf Loos, ‘Someone Is Buried Here: Adolf Loos on Architecture and Death’ (Vienna: Neue Freie Presse, 1910), p. 8. Once a person is buried, the body is (re-)united with the ground and starts to decompose. The physical body thus disappears and the tomb, as a sign, refers to this body.[23] 23 - Clemens C. Finkelstein, ‘Architectures of Excarnation: Ecstatic Being, or an Ontology of Defleshing’, in: Muerte (San Rocco, 2019), pp.52–60, quote from p. 56.
Essentially, this makes the architecture of death a materialization of an absence.[24] 24 - In his essay ‘The Thing’, Heidegger reflects on death
in a similar way, stating:‘Death is the shrine of Nothing.’
Martin Heidegger, ‘The Thing’, in Poetry, Language, Thought. (New York, Harper & Row Publishers, 1971), 161-184, quote from p. 176
As the tomb or shrine communicates the presence of a body that once was, it arguably becomes an extension of that body, embodying memory and identity. On the urban scale, this makes graveyards, as places where collective identity and memory is stored and shared, extensions of a former society. Architecture and the body become unified, a link as powerful as the link between human physiognomy and the individual, as expressed by Bataille.

The use of a metaphor as a form of imaginative thinking next to the empirical one, which is limited to physical and measurable objects, can be productive for conceptualizing and structuring a chaotic whole.[25] 25 - In his book Morphology – City Methapors, Ungers compares the plans of different city designs to images of things that share a similar design principle. One of them is for instance the human body.
Oswald M. Ungers, City Metaphors (Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 1976), p. 8.
In our search for an understanding of the border conditions in the contemporary city, an anthropomorphic way of thinking is proposed. As Drake mentions in his thesis on anthropomorphism in architecture: ‘The body provides a model of unity, as a necessary and sufficient combination of parts working together to maintain human life’.[26] 26 - Scott Drake, ‘A Well-Composed Body: Anthropomorphism in Architecture’ (School of Environmental Design University of Canberra, 2002), p. 25.
As our cities are built for the same reason, this lens could be valuable in an exploration of the city as a living body and subsequently its relation to death.

Our bodies are in constant movement – we grow and change until the point of death, which is the moment that our bodies cease to be active and start to decay naturally. To find out in what state the contemporary city finds itself, we follow the development of an imaginary city.

Organic body

The body of the city emerged when people started to settle on a fruitful location and built up a civilization. The generally accepted theory for these settlements that would later form the first cities, is the availability of a surplus of food as a consequence of agricultural improvements.[27] 27 - Jo Beall and Sean Fox, Cities and Development (USA, New York: Routledge,2009). The early city was thus very dependent on its direct environment: if there was no possibility to suffice basic needs such as food and water, then settling was not at all possible. The early city had a confined territory and organically grew into the landscape. It was like a microcosm: local, conceivable, and unified. This is analogous to the way the body was firstly introduced in the architectural discourse by Vitruvius. The body was used to structure and order architectural principles and provided ‘a visible metonym of natural or cosmic order, a microcosm’.[28] 28 - Scott Drake, A Well-Composed Body: Anthropomorphism in Architecture (School of Environmental Design University of Canberra, 2002), p. 4. Thus, the early city is understandable as a human body. In this configuration, the cemetery was an integral part of the city. Like the original local cemeteries of the inner-city districts in London, there was a close spatial relationship between life and burial space: ‘the cemetery was a vital part of the urban palette’.[29] 29 - Ken Worpole, Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (UK, London: Reaktion books, 2003), p. 32.

Restructured body

However, the city did not stay in its original shape. As it grew exponentially bigger and its needs amplified due to bigger populations, it was radically restructured into what we call the modern city. In order to explain this shift in form, a parallel is drawn between the transformation of the city and the study of anatomists in the Renaissance, which allegedly jeopardized ‘the unity and integrity of the human body itself’.[30] 30 - Scott Drake, A Well-Composed Body: Anthropomorphism in Architecture (School of Environmental Design University of Canberra, 2002), p. I.
In order to get grip on its workings, the anatomists engaged with the body scientifically: they dissected the corpse, revealed its interior, and re-arranged its parts on a table in an orderly manner. In the period of modernization, the naturally grown relations between the city’s organs (read markets, squares, houses, graveyards, etc.) were violently negated as its body was similarly cut up. The parts were separated by functionality and subsequently ordered on a grid [31] 31 - Although the grid was thoroughly used by modernists, it should be noted that it was not invented by them. Earlier uses of the grid can for instance be found in Chinese, Greek and Roman buildings. that overshadowed the city’s original landscape, and finally reconnected by straight infrastructural networks. On the one hand, the city became cleaner, less complex and structured. In the eye of the modernists, the body was mechanically transformed into one ‘whose needs can be satisfied’, one that was able to ‘enjoy previously unimaginable levels of comfort’.[32] 32 - Scott Drake, A Well-Composed Body: Anthropomorphism in Architecture (School of Environmental Design University of Canberra, 2002), p. 9.
On the other hand, however, it can be stated that modernism, in this rationalized attempt of creating a healthy, fixed and stabilized body with a correctly functioning combination of parts, killed the natural body of the city. The effectof this manipulation on the relation between city and cemetery can again be recognized in the context of London. In the 19th century, its local cemeteries were replaced by massive suburban ones, which severed the natural link between the territory of the living and the dead.[33] 33 - Ken Worpole, Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (UK, London: Reaktion books, 2003), p. 32.
When Haussmann similarly proposed to remove the local cemeteries in Paris as a part of his plan to restructure the city, the residents started protesting with the cry: ‘No cemetery, no city’[34] 34 - Ken Worpole, Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (UK, London: Reaktion books, 2003), p. 32., which reflects the violence of this reorganization.

Assembled body

The violence imposed by the restructuring was revealed and pursued by post-modernists like Wolf D. Prix, Bernard Tschumi and Daniel Libeskind. They strongly oppose identifying the body as a unified whole, and instead refer to one that ‘seems to be fragmented, if not contorted, deliberately torn apart and mutilated almost beyond recognition’.[35] 35 - Anthony Vidler, The
Building in Pain: The Body and Architecture in the Post-Modern Culture, no. 19
(1990): 3–10, quote from p. 3.
In this line of thought, the contemporary city cannot be seen as the human body that Vitruvius depicted as such, or an anatomically or mechanically correct one according to the modernist understanding. It seems to have more in common with a post-human body, a body that has moved beyond death. Similar to the medicalization of society and the consequent focus on prolonging life, the city can be regarded as a body ‘being kept alive’. Due to the urge towards progression, growth and development, parts of the city that were perceived as decaying are replaced or modified with surgical-like operations. In this way the city becomes, again using Chuks words, a ‘living memorial’[36] 36 - Natasha Chuk, “Vanishing Points”, Articulations of Death, Fragmentation, and the Unexperienced Experience of Created Objects (Bristol, UK: Intellect Ltd, 2015), p. 56.with a body that is constantly changing and re-written as a palimpsest. As Braidotti notes: ‘post-human thinking is post-identarian and relational: it turns the self away from a focus on its own identity into a threshold of active becoming’.[37] 37 - Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Malden, USA: Polity Press, 2013), p. 87.Similar to the way we have gained a certain freedom by transforming our bodies through plastic surgery, the identity of the city can be modified whilst simultaneously hiding the traces of death and decay. The post-human body of the city thus is an amalgamation of organically grown, indigenous material and components of a more ‘technological’ nature.[38] 38 - The combination of organic and inorganic material is also occurrent in the notion of the assemblage described in assemblage theory. Moreover, it is stated that: ‘Unlike organic totalities, the parts of an assemblage do not form a seamless whole.’, which is similar to the organic body of the early cities opposed to the assembled body of the contemporary ones.                    Manuel Delanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (London, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2006), effect of technology on the body is described by Halberstram and Livingston: ‘technology makes the body queer, fragments it, frames it, cuts it, transforms desire’.[39] 39 - Judith M. Halberstam and Ira Livingston, Posthuman Bodies (Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 16. The body of the city cannot anymore be regarded as a unified whole with a confined territory, but rather a fragmented, extended[40] 40 - Posthumans regard their own being as embodied in an extended technological world.’                                                    Robert Pepperell, The Posthuman Condition (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2003), p. 152.and continuously changing one, resulting in vague borders and an ill-defined territory.[41] 41 - The city of Mashhad for example, is now quenching its thirst with water from hundreds of kilometres away (provided by the Doust Dam). The shrine, which was formerly the only centre of the city and integrated in the fabric has now become increasingly autonomous, having a severed, sometimes completely denied relation with its indigenous context and its residents. And lastly (also noted in the introduction), bodies of the deceased are now dealt with in a centralized cemetery outside of the city, which could almost be regarded as a city on its own.Due to fragmentation, the body of the city is not revolving around a certain locality, like the organic city, but has multiple centralities. The fragmented pieces, broken up by the modernist restructuring, becoming autonomous and externalized parts of the city. An example of a cemetery that is related to this condition is San Cataldo by Aldo Rossi. Here, the cemetery has become such an autonomous fragment. In fact, Rossi regards the cemetery as a city in itself, a city for the dead that reflects the city of the living.[42] 42 - Connelly Lindsay Mae, Life, Death, and Design (Pennysilvania, The Pennsylvania State University, 2017), p. 4.
Its architecture, described by Scalbert as indifferent to the human and almost scientific, suggests an extension of technological nature. [43] 43 - Irénée Scalbert, ‘Death at Noon’, in Muerte (San Rocco, 2019), 37–47, quotes from p. 38, 44.The once entangled territories of the living and the dead are now completely separated. Here, the dead have their own city, a city that can be visited by the living.


TU Delft / Faculty of Architecture