Sale Funeral Home and Chapel

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Architectural Review Article

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Reprinted from the Architectural Review Spring 1996

light
and death

In Craig Rossetti's Sale Funeral Parlour an acute sense of light, scale and surface effects force the visitor to confront the reality of life and death

Story by Marcus O'Donnell - Photographs by Tim Griffith

Craig Rossetti's Funeral Parlour in Sale, Victoria sits sphinx-like in a flat rural landscape. The long rectangular building is topped by a set of rising angled, vertical, concrete slabs which break through the roof of the otherwise sedate building. In some ways this first view marks the two aspects of the building - the practical and the mystical, the earthy long line and the ascent to the other.

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According to Rossetti, the building is "all about process". He is not speaking here about the process of design but about the process of death and how we do, or don't, come to terms with it in our society. This was Rossetti's first major project, begun while he was still at university. At first such a project seems a strange one for a not-even-out-yet architect, but Rossetti proved that he was a perfect choice. Rossetti's father was a funeral director and so he had grown up with a certain familiarity with the processes of death and used his knowledge to good effect.

Rossetti is meticulous in his detailing of these processes. From the moment that a prospective mourner gets out of the car, their footsteps on the harsh gravel are set to remind them of the gritty reality of life. On approaching the building, whether they are here to organise a funeral or to mourn, they are given time, forced to pause, forced to think. The corridor to reception is long and guides them deep into the heart of the building. While Rossetti wanted to resist neutrality, easy greetings and comfort, he also simply wanted to give people here "a chance to breath".

The practical rooms - the arranging and work rooms - are sited along the north of the building and have strong vertical elements and strong northern light. Again these are simple direct and reassuring spaces. But this is not merely an architecture of reassurance. This is also a very confronting set of spaces.

The main chapel is a sheer concrete shell composed of louvred vertical concrete slabs which prop up a strange descending ceiling. The shape with its rib and branches, resembles a leaf which Rossetti sees as a symbol of life, decomposition and regeneration. The high ceiling rises behind the mourners and then descends to a single point at the front. All architectural elements converge on this one point - the unavoidable point of death, the space for the coffin, the box with the dead body. This is informed by Shaker architecture which eliminates anything extraneous and distracting for the worshipper.

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Entrance is from the side along one of the angled concrete slabs. Even here Rossetti has been quite precise. He has divided the entrances so that it is really only possible to enter one at a time - alone.

Rossetti believes that our culture's failure to face death is evident at most funerals. "You see this when you go along to funerals and find yourself talking about the new car you bought or whatever, anything to avoid those really hard issues that are at hand. Those big walls, those hard surfaces are there to remind you of your existence and concentrate your mind on what the ceremony is about.

But Rossetti also understands the process of mourning - that it is not just about confrontation with the reality of death but also about engagement with life. So while the entrance to the chapel is centred toward harsh singular surfaces, as the mourners turn after paying their respects they are struck by the light and openness of the rest of the design. The back wall is floor-to-ceiling glass and the garden behind opens out into a magical field of green.

Light is used to keep mourners focused during the service. Although light floods in from behind, the mourner is mainly conscious of the dappled late-afternoon western light coming in from between the walls.

Rossetti's sense of these light and surface effects is acute. "The western light at that time, is ethereal, with longer shadows, more mystical," Rossetti explained, "and as you sit through the service the light is changing through the afternoon, patting you on the back basically, with the dappled light coming through the trees behind you. After the service you turn around and the view explodes out again so after the deprivation of the senses, this is a kind of reassurance of life going on afterwards."

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Although this marked a spectacular and much talked about opening to Rossetti's career, he has not worked on any other funeral parlours, churches or devotional spaces. He has currently moved his base to Vietnam where he has opened an office of his partnership Rossetti Holmes. He is gradually finding a niche, developing work in the Asian region and finds himself working mainly on hotel and tourism projects.

Although hotels and funeral parlours may seem worlds apart perhaps they both remind us of our temporality - that we're just passing through.

What Rossetti's work at Sale shows is the working of an acute architectural mind well aware of the minor and major effects of scale, surface, and the natural processes of engaging with a building. If he can make his hotel's as welcoming as he made the Sale Funeral Parlour demanding, then he will be certain to carve a significant niche in the burgeoning Asian market

Marcus O'Donnell is a Melbourne writer and visual artist. He is currently the editor of OutRage

Project Summary

Design Architect: Craig Rossetti Project Architect: Craig Rossetti Project Team: Craig Rossetti, Victoria Dartnell Client: Lecora Pty Ltd Builder: Lemchens and Skulte Pty Ltd Budget: $750,000 Time to complete: 7 months Shire Council: Sale City Council Consultants - Structural: Richard Lingard and Associates Mechanical: Peter George and Associates Landscape Architect: Michael Coffey / Cathryn Rush Exterior Materials - Walls: Concrete block, Stratblox, sandblasted concrete tilt-up panels Roof: Lysaght Hi-Ten Windows: N.A. Aluminium Flooring: Parquetry & carpet Glass: Sale Glass & Glazing Joinery: Matt Summers, Mill Design Workshop, Bairnsdale Interior Materials - Furniture: Matt Summers, Mill Design Workshop, Bairnsdale Hardware: Lockwood Symphony

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