The Great Pyramid

Geriatric Space

Dessau, DE
Type: Infrastructure Research

Commissioned by Ingo Niermann

Great Pyramid

  • Team: Nikolaus Hirsch, Wolfgang Lorch, Markus Miessen
  • With contributions by Valeska Bühler, Matthias Görlich, Santiago Espitia Berndt
  • Structural Engineering: Bollinger & Grohmann

Contemporary societies still focus on the cult of the youth, yet slowly but inevitably the discourse is acknowledging the demographic facts of the ageing population. The new question is: How does a society react to a reality in which age and death shift into its centre? How does a society organize spaces that negotiate the dead and the living? Is it still possible to define those spaces as “heterotopian”, i.e. as Foucault did when he described the modern invention of hospitals, asylums and cemeteries? Can we develop spaces that include age and death and understand them not in notions of decay but as a trigger for urban development?

Based on the pyramid as its urban catalyst the project created a zone between life and death, a city of passing away, without being marginalized by the societies that its inhabitants originate from. The urban addressed the question of how one can think of environments that produce a quality of homeliness. The vast majority of people tend to think of death as something that can be postponed, something that – as an overbearing issue – is not to be addressed within one’s lifetime. However, with more and more people suffering from terminal illnesses, one needs to think about scenarios in which people can not only immerse in environments of care, but further, how they relate with the space where they will eventually get buried. The question arose as to what could potentially turn those spaces into typologies that are no longer connected with fear and despair, but both solitude and community.

Until now, we seem to have failed to produce the necessary links between what one might call the ‘environment of home’, and the ‘environment of death’. In order to generate a rupture within the homogeneity of the kinds of care environments we are used to, a new space is needed, one that is comprised of a mix of international residents, visitors, and service personnel: a multi-language, multi-ethnic, and a-territorial population – an environment in which everything is possible and nothing is forbidden.

In January this year Rem Koolhaas, as chairman of the jury, announced that all four contestants won: “In the end the variety and richness of the entries kept the jury from declaring a single winner – given the enormity of the enterprise, there is scope for each author to contribute and enrich the massive effort.”

Review by Eikongraphia:

“In their design Hirsch, Lorch and Miessen have projected the pyramid in a lake that is lined with a small city dedicated to the transition between life and death. There the grievers, the dying and the dead find services of their liking. Boats take them to the actual pyramid. ‘Based on the pyramid as its urban catalyst the project creates a zone between life and death, a city of passing away”, the designers wrote: “[…] what could potentially turn those spaces into typologies that are no longer connected with fear and despair, but both solitude and community.’ The isolation of the pyramid in the lake adds to its mystique. It becomes an ‘over there’, something to confront. You can walk around the lake, and thereby walk around the pyramid, without any possibility to approach it. To thicken the experience a rule could be applied that tourists – there will be tourists – are not allowed to cross the lake. Even future-grievers or future-dead are not allowed to go there. Only the dead and those who have stayed behind can approach and climb the pyramid. From an aesthetic point of view the lake forms a beautiful abstract plane that enhances the form of the pyramid. Like the desert in Egypt adds drama to the ancient pyramids there. There is a great processional quality in this proposal. First the preparation of oneself at viewing distance of the pyramid, then moving towards it, and finally climbing the pyramid. The clear definition of those three steps underscores each experience. Furthermore this continues an intrinsic practice of funerals, at least as I know them: First there are speeches and prayers in a dedicated building or church, then you go to the graveyard by car or by walking, to then there bury the loved one. That processional practice has a contemplating and social aspect to it that has worked forever. One intriguing question also arises at this design: should we connect this ‘taking the boat’ to the Greek myths of the ferryman in the underworld? Could we expect a re-emerging of the practice to place coins on the eyes of the passed, money to pay for the passage?”