Death by design

This post was published in 1843 Magazine and can be seen in the June/July 2017 edition. 

The Crematorium Hofheide is situated in the middle of a lake in Holsbeek, Belgium. An elongated core of earth-coloured stone wrapped in a layer of rusty steel, it appears to float on the water – although on sunny days, when the sky is reflected by the surface of the lake, it seems to float in the air. In fact the structure sits on top of a partly buried plinth, connecting the world above with the world below. In 2016, it won the Architizer A+ award in the Religious Buildings and Memorials category. This year RCRArquitectes, the Catalan trio who designed it, won the Pritzker prize for a body of work, architecture’s most prestigious gong.

The crematorium at Holsbeek is part of a wave of new design work aimed at reconceiving death. As rates of religious belief continue to decline across the rich world, and fewer people feel that the ceremonies and aesthetics of traditional religious funerals suit them, designers are catering to people who want more choice. Much of this work has focused on death as a part of nature. When Designboom, a magazine, ran a competition called Design for Death in 2013, first prize went to Enzo Pascual and Pierre Rivière for “Emergence”, a biodegradable capsule in which ashes are buried. As it dissolves, the casing enriches the soil around it, helping plants to grow. According to Amy Cunningham, who runs Fitting Tribute Funeral Services in New York, some of her clients prefer to “surrender fully to Mother Nature, rather than working against her”, and choose to be buried in coffins made of wool, banana leaf or woven willow. The latter, she says, appeal particularly to women. “They say, ‘Oh my God, that’s me!’ as if they’re looking at a dress in Saks on Fifth Avenue.”

But while many of these products remain a niche concern, the design of crematoriums is anything but. In 1960 just 3% of America’s dead were cremated; this year cremation will overtake burial in the United States, matching countries like Britain, Sweden and Denmark, where around three-quarters opt for their bodies to be dispatched by fire. Yet the rising popularity of cremation is not matched by that of crematoriums, where grim efficiency tends to trump ceremony: characterless corridors, rows of uncomfortable seats and bad lighting combine with a shortage of space to ensure that seeing off loved ones is depressing rather than uplifting. “You feel like you’re on a conveyor belt,” says Louise Winter, whose company Poetic Endings provides bespoke funeral services in London. She is seeing a rise in the number of people requesting “direct cremation”, where a body is burnt without any ceremony at all, so that families can bypass what Winter describes as “ugly places on the edge of town with bad parking”.

Darkness to light 
MAIN IMAGE Light shining through the façade of the crema­torium at Holsbeek produces changing patterns on the wall. ABOVE A ceremonial room at Crematorium Hofheide.

The move towards better crematoriums is particularly pronounced in Europe – one of the most secular parts of the world. “Crematoriums tend to be too industrial,” says RCR’s Carme Pigem. “But death is a part of life. Once we leave the Earth we are still part of the universe, and architecture can help connect the two.” At Holsbeek they created a gently symbolic play of light and shadow. The thin steel strips encasing the building hang vertically, allowing light to shine onto the walls in a pattern which changes throughout the day and reflects the ripples on the water outside. Inside the sepulchral spaces where ceremonies take place, light pours through wells reaching into the centre of the room from the ceiling, creating a sense of intimacy and privacy. The crematorium is at the heart of a park with an orchard and two cemeteries full of wild flowers.

The crematorium in Rennes designed by Plan 01, a French firm, is constructed as a sequence of circles – a shape which, as well as having resonances with ancient sites like Stonehenge, gives the interior of the building a feeling of openness and air. The exterior, clad in pale wood, is soft and tactile. Inside there are no corridors but a series of interlocking, curved spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows. Both here and at the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, by Johan Celsing, the architects have used perforations in the walls to absorb sound and soften the acoustics. They have paid attention, as Celsing puts it, to the “clemency” of the building.

The cremation itself is not the only part of the process that is being reimagined. After her husband died, Diana McGlue kept his ashes on a bookshelf at home for three years. He wasn’t religious and “faceless crematoria” held no appeal. Then she discovered Sacred Stones, a British company founded by Toby Angel. Last year it opened Willow Row in Cambridgeshire, the first round barrow to be built in Britain for 5,500 years; another will open soon in Shropshire, and McGlue will keep her husband’s remains there.

In with the old
ABOVE The niches at Willow Row in Cambridgeshire. BELOW The entrance to the barrow

Angel did not enjoy seeing his aunt off in a crematorium. “Nasty blue carpet, Luther Vandross and 20 minutes later we were out.” He wanted to create a space which, while open to people of all faiths and none, has an atmosphere of sacredness. A six-foot, diamond-shaped sentinel stone welcomes visitors; behind it is the softly domed barrow. Sound is reduced to a low, comforting hum. The 11-metre wide structure, with a stone roof five metres high, consists of an inner chamber of 59 large “family” niches which can take up to five sets of ashes, at a cost of £7,000 ($8,700) for a 99-year lease. This is surrounded by an outer circle of 349 individual ones, available for around £2,000. Families can gather at the barrow for ceremonies lasting as long as they want. York-stone benches lining the outer circle and inner chamber offer a place for contemplation and remembrance.

Prehistoric barrows harnessed the energy of a communal gathering. Places like Willow Row and the crematoriums at Holsbeek and Rennes show how these ideas can be updated. “Architecture can describe the relationship between spirit, sensuality and emotion,” says Pigem. “Through that, we can celebrate life.”

Of MiSK and risk: Saudi Arabia


This article was published today in The Economist’s Espresso news app 

The inaugural forum of the MiSK Foundation, founded by Muhammad bin Salman, the deputy crown prince, starts today in Riyadh. The two-day culture-and-technology event is aimed at youth in the kingdom and the wider Arab world. Attendees will hear from Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder, and an array of investors, inventors and journalists.

The event forms part of Vision 2030, the Saudi plan to migrate from an oil-based economy. But it also serves to boost the prince’s chances of inheriting the throne. Keen to outshine his cousin, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, and to divert attention from a dismal war in Yemen, the younger Prince Muhammad wants to be seen as championing the next generation.

But there is a risk. Saudi youth encouraged to explore the world today may return tomorrow with ideas that challenge the kingdom’s conservative stances. Politics is not on the agenda today; in coming years, it may be.

Oil be damned

PROSPEChorsehillcamp-1TORS used to taste the stuff to determine its quality, and the oil tapped on February 16th in the Surrey countryside sounded delicious: light, sweet and less than 1% water. UK Oil & Gas (UKOG), the firm operating the exploratory well at Horse Hill, just north of Gatwick airport, says its first two tankers-worth are already being refined and will be in petrol stations within a fortnight.

The company announced that it had struck oil a year ago, to some scepticism. But its test this week extracted nearly 500 barrels of good-quality crude from a depth of 900m (3,000 feet) in the Lower Kimmeridge limestone zone. The oil flowed to the surface under its own pressure, known in the parlance as a gusher. This is good news for UKOG, as it ought to mean fewer costly, dirty mechanical interventions and no need for unpopular “fracking” (which is legal in Britain only below 1,000m anyway). That, of course, is unlikely to shift the dogged environmental campaigners camped out at the site, who would rather the oil stayed in the ground.

Still, it is one thing to know oil is there and quite another to extract it profitably. As only part of a reserve is usually recovered (the permeability of rock precluding extraction of the rest), prospectors need to be sure there is enough to make the effort pay. And the oil price has been tumbling: Brent crude now trades at just over $30 a barrel, perilously close to the $18-25 range that UKOG says is needed to break even in Britain’s onshore industry.

UKOG is encouraged by analyses by Nutech and Schlumberger, a pair of energy-research firms, that suggest Horse Hill could contain between 9 billion and 11 billion barrels of oil. With the right investment the Weald Basin, the surrounding area to which the company has access, could produce 10-15% of Britain’s daily oil demand in a decade or so, says Stephen Sanderson, UKOG’s boss.

That is a somewhat lower estimate than the company gave last year, and others are more cautious still. “So far, it’s not so much the Gatwick gusher—more the Dorking dribbler,” says Richard Selley, a geologist at Imperial College London. It is notoriously difficult to predict when the natural fractures through which oil flows will close, he warns. Tests lasting many months are required. Mr Sanderson complains that getting permission to drill takes two years in Britain, compared with two months in Texas.

Still, oilmen point to the Wytch Farm field on Dorset’s Jurassic coast as an example of environmentally responsible and profitable extraction. Sited in protected countryside and surrounded by woodland, it is barely known to locals. UKOG hopes that its sites across the Weald Basin will be similarly invisible—and profitable.

This article was commissioned by The Economist

Bored of the Big Man

20150618-MuseveniI wrote this article for The Economist, based on my Ugandan trip.  It can be seen in the paper here.

THE buildings stormed by Israeli commandos in 1976 still stand on Entebbe airfield. Now they are joined by the occasional C-17 Globemaster of the United States Air Force, part of an American presence trying, among other things, to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army. Over the years, Uganda’s allies and foes have chopped and changed.

But one fact stubbornly endures: since independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda has never experienced a peaceful transition of power. In the coming year though, opponents of President Yoweri Museveni think they at last have a chance to unseat him at the ballot box.

In 1986 Uganda’s current ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), emerged victorious from a protracted civil war that had started with the ousting of Idi Amin in 1979. Mr Museveni, as the NRM’s head, has been president ever since; 80% of Ugandans have known no other leader. Many Ugandans care less about past glories than the frustrations of the present, especially over corruption, jobs and housing. But a divided opposition has provided no plausible alternative and, in any case, removing Mr Museveni through the ballot will be difficult. The NRM is woven into the fabric of Ugandan society and has a long reach. Opposition parties may continue to find it hard to compete against it, even if many Ugandans are no longer enthralled by Mr Museveni. Even so two recent events raise the possibility that an election due next year may offer a change.

On June 9th the main opposition parties and civic leaders came together to form the Democratic Alliance (DA). Similar groupings have emerged before but have failed to dent the NRM. This time lengthy consultations and a wide acceptance that only unity can lead to change have created a more resolute collaboration, says Zac Niringiye, a former Bishop of Kampala. “I do not hate Museveni,” he says, “I love him because he is a human being. But he is the source of all instability and needs to go.”

Another development is the declaration on June 15th by Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister and chief thorn in Mr Museveni’s side, that he will fight for the NRM’s nomination as presidential candidate in place of Mr Museveni at the party’s convention on October 4th. As a leading NRM figure he hopes to win support from party members thirsting for change. But Mr Museveni knows a thing or two about holding on to power. The NRM is full of bigwigs who owe their positions to the president. Challenging from within the party is a risky strategy.

Should the NRM stick with Uganda’s longstanding president, Mr Mbabazi says he may talk to the DA. But having been at the hub of power so long, he may struggle to win over the anti-NRM vote. Whether he is the man to offer it or not, change is needed, especially at the top.

Singing like a bird

20150521-system failure imageIT IS one thing to possess the ability to interfere with the avionic systems onboard an aircraft. It is quite another to announce to the world the intention of practicing such capabilities. But it takes a galactic level of stupidity, hubris or, perhaps, courage to tweet that you are going to do it when you are in seat 3A of United Airlines flight 1607, about to depart from Denver to Chicago. That is exactly what Chris Roberts, a security researcher with One World Labs, did last month:

Find myself on a 737/800, lets see Box-IFE-ICE-SATCOM, ?  Shall we start playing with EICAS messages? “PASS OXYGEN ON” Anyone ? 🙂

The tweet in question (above) suggests Mr Roberts intended to interfere with the Engine Indication Crew Alerting System (EICAS), which informs crew when something goes amiss with a plane’s engine. Or perhaps he wanted to deploy the passenger oxygen masks. Unsurprisingly, he is now helping the FBI with their enquiries. His actions have animated the debate about so-called “cyberjacking”—the ability to take control of aircraft remotely, or at least interfere with aircraft systems for malicious gain. How seriously should such claims be taken?

Mr Roberts maintains his intention was to raise awareness of security vulnerabilities. The FBI says Mr Roberts had identified a weakness with the in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems on Boeing 737-800, 737-900, 757-200 and Airbus A-320 aircraft. It is thought he accessed the systems by plugging a laptop into one of the electronic boxes usually found under the seats either side of the aisle. Once connected, Mr Roberts claims to have accessed other systems on the aircraft. He admits to having issued a “CLB”, or climb command, to the thrust management computer on a previous flight, resulting in a “lateral or sideways movement of the plane”.

Industry experts are sceptical of such claims but admit it is theoretically possible. As the data bus for the IFE is not also used for communications or flight systems, at best Mr Roberts may have seen interference between the two systems, says David Stupples, professor of electronics and radio systems at City University in London. Data packets travelling on copper wires (common in older aircraft) may allow some messages to be seen, but probably only the meta-data, such as the origin and destination of the message, rather than the content itself, which is encrypted. The fibre optic architecture of modern aircraft will not suffer similarly. And anyway, to change an aircraft’s direction Mr Roberts would have had to persuade it that he was the satellite navigation system. That entails spoofing the signals from up to 16 satellites at a time; a tall order suggests Mr Stupples.

There is no room for complacency, however. Last month, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) raised concerns over plans to replace the current radar-based air-traffic control with one based on satellite navigation and automation. In a report, it warned that with increased reliance on the internet “unauthorised individuals might access and compromise aircraft avionics systems” and that cyber-based threats present “significant security control weaknesses”.

The industry is acting. Airbus, for example, is working with Cranfield University in Britain to mitigate the risk. One idea is to have a preset “safe state” for each stage of flight, which the aircraft will adopt in the event of system anomalies being discovered. (In the recent Germanwings tragedy, such a system might have decided that descending over mountainous terrain with no immediate airfield available was so odd as to be countermanded.) Another solution is for all flight safety systems to be triplicated and operated on a “voting” system, meaning any malicious software would need to affect at least two systems.

All of which points to how difficult the concept of cyberjacking is. Industry experts and the GAO report suggest the threat of a disgruntled employee infecting the aircraft systems prior to flight (say, during routine maintenance) is more likely. The possibility of hackers taking control of aircraft, while real, should not be overblown. But for one man it has already been costly. Twelve days after his initial tweet, Mr Roberts followed it with one reading:

United have cancelled ALL my trips…and my daughters…and no refund on the Air Miles..goodbye 100,000 Miles so it seems…

This post was commissioned by The Economist