A soft breeze is all it takes for the wind vane cross to gently turn to find its origin. Cycles of water manifest in the rain that finds its way to a basin where visitors fill a bud vase to place next to a grave-marker. The sky, in its endless variations of color, is composed in small, square pictures that constantly morph and change. Designed by Max Levy, FAIA, for an episcopal church in Dallas, the Saint Michael and All Angels Columbarium offers a meaningful experience and a connection to nature that goes beyond the building’s timeless form and function.
A columbarium is a structure with recesses that hold the cremated remains of those who have passed. Columbaria are common in Europe and are proliferating in the United States. At Levy’s columbarium, there are three courts: wind, rain, and sky. Each manifests its respective aspect of nature. The building sits along an existing walk connecting Colgate Avenue and the narthex. Along the walkway, the canopies of large, white oaks fracture and frame the sky. Secluded from the church and protected from the world beyond, the columbarium occupies a space beneath an opening in the trees. It is this framing of the sky that came to embody the spirit of the project.
Four walls of brick enclose three courts. Each wall opens to admit the path. The gates are bronze with vertical-grain cedar slates, as are the ivy-covered screens at the outer edges of the courts. The walls are thicker at the base and capped in limestone to provide benches, which line the south side of every court. Limestone lintels at openings allow the limestone wall cap to float across and continue the length of the walls. The brick sets up the 8-by-8-in grid within which the niches are placed to accommodate the burial urns. Each niche is covered with a limestone plaque engraved with the name of the deceased.
The first court interacts with the wind: There is a tall, bronze cross centered on the east end of the court. As the air begins to stir, the cross becomes a wind vane: It rotates into the wind on a ball bearing, guided by a perforated bronze fin that extends the cross’s vertical bar. The element is stayed to the adjacent walls of the court with cables that disappear in the tree canopy beyond.
The cross is elegant in its engineering. Its shaft is a solid 1.25-in-diameter stainless-steel rod that cantilevers from the foundation to the horizontal bar. Atop the rod is a 1-in-diameter stainless-steel ball bearing. The hollow square tube of the wind vane slips over this assembly. Levy’s inspiration for the ball-bearing detail came from a late 19th century book about wind vanes. “The famous huge wind vane atop the Punta della Dogana in Venice pivots similarly on a single ball bearing,” notes Levy, “and [it] has been doing so for about four hundred years!”
The second court interacts with the rain: An open channel runs the length of the first internal wall, and like an extruded bronze challis, it accepts the rain. The water is directed down through a square bronze pipe that terminates at a bronze basin. The precision of the bronze
work is superb. The water, which has a constant drip, forms a perfect crown around the perimeter of the circular bowl, always waiting for one more drip to break the surface tension holding it in place. Adjacent to the bowl are small bronze crosses with hollow cores, waiting to be dipped in the rainwater and used as vases. With the addition of a fresh flower, each cross can be suspended by its horizontal bar between the two bronze studs embedded in each limestone plaque.
The third court interacts with the sun and sky. “The sky makes up one half of nature,” says Levy, “and in our daily comings and goings there is a vast landscape overhead. One way of bringing this into focus is through architecture.” Some of the niches in this court appear to be missing limestone covers. Upon peering in, you see the sky as though you are looking through a window. The bronze has been extended through the masonry walls to house mirrors tilted upward to the sky. The opposing wall in this last court has bronze crosses perched atop the final wall of the columbarium. The vertical bar of the cross extends into the court, allowing the sun to project the image of the cross on the wall. The cross elongates, extends, and moves across the wall and away as the day transpires.
Some projects transcend their construction to endow meaning. Here, the elements of nature have been isolated, purified, and expressed in ways that many will relate to religious beliefs and symbolic truths, allowing the space to become more than a place of mourning. It is not about being alone; it’s about being alive, hearing the wind change, feeling the coolness of the water wash over your hand, and seeing the shadows move about the wall, watching the sky’s composition through a tiny picture frame that only you can see. Yet there is a stillness here that allows one to grieve, facing the realities of death — and in the quiet moments also find gentle reminders of life.
Levy explains it this way: “If you’re going to visit a gravesite, you are very much in yourself. You’re going to confront something. You want to get away — away from words. You don’t want to be sermonized; you want a nonverbal experience. Nature has a very strong spiritual dimension. Nature is vast and intimate at the same time — that is the divine element of nature; there is nothing else you can describe like that. When it is vast and intimate at the same time, it answers those questions. The vastness takes you away from yourself and connects you to the world, and the intimacy brings it back to you … that is the power of letting nature solve this.”
This place is a space between — the edge of the church and the world, a place of coming and going, a place of stopping and starting again. It is a place for remembering, with beautiful interactions that call on us to look up and look beyond ourselves for meaning.
Bart Shaw, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth.
Originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of Texas Architect.