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Home of the dead. An award-winning project by a Polish architect!

Dobrawa Bies
13 of March '23

Olga Skrbeńska a graduate of TU Delft, currently living and working in Norway, received an honorable mention in the international competition „Memorial for Witches.” The challenge was to face a difficult topic—injustice prevalent in society past or present. The Polish woman's proposal is a house of the dead, intended for excluded people who have not been properly honored and have not experienced peace in death.

The „Memorial for Witches” competition organized by the Buildner platform was the first in a series of architectural competitions designed to remind society of ways to deal with irrational fears. The organizers asked the public to choose any form of injustice—ongoing at the moment or from the past—and attempt to honor those affected by it. Participants in the competition could choose any location—real or imaginary—that would provide a suitable location for the designed object / monument. The submitted concepts could function as a source of information about past events or as a method of raising awareness in terms of existing injustices.

Projekt domu zmarłych, przekrój, we wnętrzu znajduje się ogród

design of the house of the dead, cross-section—in the interior there is a garden

© Olga Skrbeńska

honorable mention for a Pole!

The projects submitted from all over the world were evaluated by a jury consisting of: Rachel Christ-Doane (director of education at the Salem Witch Museum), Bartosz Haduch (architect, NArchitekTURA), Sebastian Letz (creative director of Milla & Partner), Katie MacDonald (After Architecture, University of Virginia), Paul Monaghan (director of AHMM), Hans Olof Furberg (director of the culture and education department at Västernorrland County Council and director of the Development of the Witch Museum in Torsåker, Sweden) Elke Sterling-Presser and Nicolas Sterling (Sterling Presser Architects and Engineers), David Telerman (Atelier David Telerman).

The jury awarded three grand prizes(First Prize for the project „The Weightless Being” went to a team from the United States consisting of Xiaodan Zhou Chuhong Yin), the Buildner Sustainability Award and six equivalent honorable mentions, among which was the work „Everybody deserves to die. House for the dead” by Olga Skrbeńska from Poland!

project for the excluded

The award-winning project by the young architect living in Norway touches on the difficult yet delicate problem of death and the human body, and the inequalities associated with their treatment.

The history of mankind is littered with instances of undignified treatment of the dead body. Those who were not baptized could not be buried in the family tomb. Those who committed suicide were buried behind cemetery walls in an anonymous land. No one claimed the bodies of kidnapped Nepalese girls who had been infected with HIV as a result of rape in an Indian brothel. Those who practiced „magic” were burned so that no trace of them remained.
Harlot, Pagan, Sinner, Madman, Enemy. My project is for those who have been excluded from society and have not found peace in death. I dedicate it to those who have been pushed out and disappeared into oblivion. I want to follow the trail of smoke, I want to follow the trickle of shadow. Therefore, those who have not rested in the grave will dwell in the house of the dead. The project aims to exorcise a social taboo and honor those who touched it and were stigmatized for it,” explains Olga Skrbeńska.

Wnętrze pomieszczenia z rzeźbami ludzkich figur Dla odwiedzających grobowiec autorka przewidziała specjalny rytuał

crossing the threshold of the building, visitors find themselves in a room where shadow reigns

© Olga Skrbeńska

Home of the dead

When working on the concept, the architect tried to look at architecture in a slightly different way and find a certain element of surprise in it. One that will make visitors to the building feel that they are touching a mystery.

The feeling that will accompany them is one of intrigue, but at the same time something uncomfortable, like an inconvenient pebble in the shoe I imagined old houses, devoid of electricity and artificial light, and nocturnal pupils, crawling out of their dark corners. In particular, I was inspired by an excerpt from Jun'ichirō Tanizaki's essay titled "The Glory of Shadow" about an ancient Japanese woman hidden in the shadows of a house, behind layers of sliding walls, doors, beneath folds of kimono and black to the teeth, which he compared to the pupils that haunt cursed, dark places. I based my own reflections on the contemporary form of the witch's house on this metaphor," the author adds.

Projekt domu zmarłych, aksonometria

design of the house of the dead, axonometry

© Olga Skrbeńska

two worlds

The award-winning project is a building that is a memorial to those who have passed away, but the memory of them has not been properly honored. The author proposed a single-space atrial form made of fired wood, whose „green heart"—the roof garden- "floats” above a centrally located shadow zone with sculptures of human silhouettes. The building's drainage runs along the columns supporting the mezzanine.

The concept is a juxtaposition of two worlds—complementing and coexisting each other—shadow and death and light and life. These are represented by a symbolic tomb, the dark interior of the building and a living, green „magic” garden located in the center of the building.

Projekt domu zmarłych, ogród z kwitnącymi zimą kwiatami

A garden with winter-blooming flowers

© Olga Skrbeńska

A marshy, flatland landscape

As a location, the designer chose an unspecified place in a flat, marshy area of Poland.

Swamps reflect the sky, and leafless trees mayhem around like nameless shadows. This kind of landscape played quite a role in Slavic mythology—it was a place where dangerous creatures, demons and goddesses lurked. Water is the source of life, but that which does not move brings disease and death. Visitors to the pavilion see a sharp-cut black form from afar, which looks more like its own shadow, the designer explains.

Dom zmarłych

The building was made of fired wood

© Olga Skrbeńska

kingdom of shadow

Crossing the threshold of the building, visitors find themselves in a room where shadow reigns, thickening around sculptures of human figures.

Since the eye, unable to clearly perceive their shapes, the imagination makes the sculptures come to life. At times, it is also possible to see other visitors, whose silhouettes appear from behind the glass of the roof garden, At that time, those who are inside the building, realize that they are underground, in a grave," says the author about this space.

Kawałek papieru można wsunąć w specjalnie przygotowaną niszę

A piece of paper can be slipped into a specially prepared niche

© Olga Skrbeńska

cleansing ritual

The author has provided a special ritual for visitors to the tomb. They can leave a rolled up piece of paper on which they will write their memento. The whiteness of the paper reflects the frail light that enters the room through the overhanging mezzanine.

A name, a memory, of something they've lost, or something they're afraid to talk about openly. The gesture of slipping a piece of paper into a small niche in the wall is a distant reflection of the ritual of burying the dead. The card is also a metaphor for the white bones resting in the grave. I would like to point out that what is written down is not some kind of wish, but a verbalization of personal pain. I believe that in the modern world, topics such as death, illness and trauma are ignored and often passed over in silence, despite the fact that they represent great potential for personal growth, if only given the space for proper reflection," the designer explains.

Rośliny zastosowane w wewnętrznym ogrodzie

The plants used in the indoor garden only bloom in winter

© Olga Skrbeńska

way towards the light

Visitors then walk out towards the light, into the inner garden, with a tree in the middle and plants, blooming only in winter.

The garden is meant to speak of the magic, beauty and tenacity of life. Life is everywhere—life is eternal," Olga Skrbeńska concludes.

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