Being Towards Death

View within the "plot" structure
Exploded Section showing components of the facility
Site and Demographics
Exhumed cemetery and healthcare facility map
Concept diagram
Diagram: Grafting of new transportation to existing BART infrastructure
Aerial view looking north towards downtown San Francisco
Interior of atrium space
Tectonic section detail
Site Plan
Diagram: Ritual Redefined

Primary Authors

  • Jim Zeller
  • Ryan Carter
  • Jenna Wiegand
  • Callah Nelson


  • Iowa State University


  • Deborah (Hauptmann)


  • Luis Rico-Gutierrez


With the city’s back turned against it, death has had a long history of marginalization and neglect as burials within San Francisco have been systematically exhumed and reburied in the city of Colma. Our project focuses on the ritual of mourning and burial from the perspective of urban consciousness. Contemporary western practice dictates a viewing ritual, requiring the deceased to be embalmed. The chemicals used for preservation only prolong the body’s decomposition, ultimately leaching poisonously into the ground; additionally, this process re-attributes the identity of the deceased with a body, which becomes a spatial issue when introduced to the urban condition. This is to say, if the “dead” are to have a continuing presence within the city, we must let go of their physical vessel and re-imagine our relationship with them abstractly. Instead, we propose a process called “promession.” The result is not unlike cremated remains, but does not contribute to the pollution of the air or ground. Once the physical vessel is reduced to this form the memory becomes associated with a plant. This increases the density of deceased that can occupy a plot of land and as such demands a new architecture that brings the memory of our ancestors back into the fabric of the city. This is our goal: to reinstate the memory of the dead within the city of San Francisco, and give them an honored placement at the center of the city. To this end, our strategy works with a two-part program: ritual and memory.

Project Statement

This studio challenged us to examine how the so-called “high” and “low” culture in contemporary society have been blurred or completely broken down. It asks us to focus on the socio-political and cultural nuances exerted by and contained within architecture. We have created a thesis project that contributes to a vast array of conventions on the issues and topics that shape global culture but which can no longer be ignored because they underwrite architecture’s performativity and cultural agency within a city. By ‘performativity’ it is meant any of the nonverbal forms of expressive action to intervene in the course of human events and by ‘agency’ it is meant the capacity of an entity to act in the world. We were to begin working from the following premise: “There is nothing about being an architect that exempts me from the normal obligations of citizenship. In fact, being so may demand increased obligation because I know how to do research and I know how to ‘make’ in response to it.” At the outset of the studio we were cautioned not to search for easy, conventional or necessarily “correct” answers, but rather to attempt to identify what is plausible given the widest range of resources and information at our disposal while remaining “comprehensive” in addressing the real concerns of building. In this sense, the main struggle is to remain speculative and innovative, having one’s work reflect an enlightening vision of potential.

Project Description

Leland De La Durantaye in his ‘Cabinet’ article Mode of Death states, “(the character)Fashion begins with the bright side of Death, that it ‘continually renews the world,’ and argues that this renewal is a part of their shared calling. Seeing death as an unhappy ending is to see only one half of the story—and is to leave out the fresh beginning which is, ultimately, a question of perspective.” Our project celebrates the anti-perspective to death as an ‘unhappy’ end and brings this phenomenon back into the city fabric. As a middle ground between traditional and natural burial practices, we propose processing the large number of deaths in San Francisco with the technique of Promession. This involves granulating the body by crystallizing it in liquid nitrogen, vibrating via sound waves, and then freeze-drying to remove excess moisture. The remains are temporarily memorialized in the ritualistic sowing of a plant -a ritual which replaces the western tradition of a funeral and embalming. Eventually, the plant passes, itself being only a temporary carrier of the deceased identity. This consolidation of the body means that a high density of memories can be placed within a shared space of grieving within San Francisco; grieving that is not marginalized but centralized. This acts to merge the identity of the individual with the larger identity of the city. What is left is a permanent architecture, providing memorial to the larger body of absence within the city.

View within the "plot" structure