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High spirits

Highgate cemetery witnesses a resurrection (or two)

It was when the all-too-solid ghost of Adolf Loos, preposterously moustachio’d, appeared among the tombstones of Highgate Cemetery just after dusk and regaled us with some of his challenging architectural theories in an increasingly ranty manner, that I thought: architectural discourse is getting interesting again. So thanks to the revitalised Architecture Foundation and – in this case – its excellently-named ‘Good Grief’ series of mid-September debates on topics of loss and memory.

There we were, in the courtyard of the spookier western part of the cemetery with its restored chapel/gatehouse. In the centre of the space stood a structure, in timber and mesh, glowing a fiery reddish-orange. Inside it was a plinth and on that, an urn. Nicely scaled and sited as a focal point to the embracing colonnade behind, this was a funerary monument, but a transitory one. It was ‘A Very Small Part of Architecture’, an installation by Sam Jacob Studio commissioned by the AF for the three evenings of debates. 

It is based on Loos’ 1921 design for a mausoleum for art historian Max Dvorák – one of those very influential unbuilt designs that was intended to be in dark, solid masonry. Jacob made a ghost of it, at 1:1 scale. It is, he says, ‘a different kind of memorial. Not one dedicated to a person, an event or a moment in time, not designed to remember the past but instead to imagine other possibilities, altered presents and alternative futures.’ Its name was part of a quote from Loos’s 1910 essay ‘Architecture’ in which he wrote: ‘Only a very small part of architecture belongs to the realm of art: the tomb and the monument

Only a very small part of architecture belongs to the realm of art: the tomb and the monument

The audience gathered round, sitting on chairs set out to the radius of the colonnade, focused on the unearthly tomb. The evenings were timed so that you arrived just as the daylight was fading: thus the glow of the fiery mausoleum increased as the surroundings fell into darkness. The fact that a modernist masterpiece – the listed Cor-Ten house of the late John Winter – overlooked the scene, its own huge windows ectoplasmically glowing, added to the atmosphere.

You might think proceedings would be a bit subdued given the location and subject matter but in fact it was quite a lark, devised as a form of popular entertainment (hence the ham actor playing Loos) sandwiching the serious discussion. The apocalyptic visual set-up and challenging acoustics were bound to overwhelm the discussion, but really that was only an excuse to gather people to see the set-up. That’s what made me go on a chilly Friday evening, I admit. In fact the idea of resurrecting the Loos mausoleum was an existing Jacob project; the AF found it a home in Highgate and programmed events to go with it. 

All this requires a huge amount of work, way beyond what’s normally needed to get an architectural discussion going. The energy of all involved was incredible, as was the sponsorship of Zaha Hadid Architects, RCKA, Carmody Groarke and engineer AKT II, plus the practical help of architectural collective Assemble. As the gin circulated and the miasmas of night rose wraith-like in the autumn air, fiddlers in the mausoleum (including our own columnist Maria Smith) broke into folk tunes. Oh death, where is thy sting? Has architectural debate risen from the grave?