Braamfontein cemetery is the original allocated burial ground of Johannesburg city that was founded in 1885. This green lung at the edge of the CBD has over time become an unused, fenced off and almost forgotten public space. The site as a whole acts as a portal/window that speaks of a different time. Rich history is shown through the aged headstones, large old trees and narrow interior roads. Sadly this history is mostly only seen through fences and very seldom explored by visitors. Compared to a working cemetery, Braamfontein cemetery is inactive and dead, mainly because its capacity has been reached and existing graves are mostly older than 60 years and no longer have visitors.
The smaller site chosen within Braamfontein cemetery is allocated in the south west corner. A three meter wide horse carriage path that runs from close to the south edge near the railway, seventy five meters north, to the middle of the cemetery. This path was chosen as the building site because of the beautiful experience of walking from a noisy street deeper into nature, letting the sounds of the city fade away. Following the same path from either north to south or vice versa looking skywards, a beautiful line of light could be viewed through the treetops that create an overhang where they touch in the middle of the path. Both sides of the path sport astonishing lines of large old trees evenly spaced with beautifully aged headstone and graves between them.
Bordering the edges on either side of the three meter wide path, are graves limiting any part of a structure touching the ground to a maximum of three meters. The path sits mainly on a single contour line and has a very slight, almost unnoticeable slope from east to west. Walking along the path running water movement is noticeable through corrosion and leaf patterns on the ground. There is no infrastructure to deal with storm water runoff and water simply finds its own path from one end of the site to the other. Large moss patches can be viewed in some places on the path suggesting pooling.
The goals of the structure are to put emphases on the experience of leaving the city behind, moving not only through space but, giving a sense of moving back in time. In turn a space for the user to experience quiet reflection by walking the full length of path, slowly being moved from the busy city to the slower movement of the branches and leaves of the trees blowing in a breeze. Reflection was further explored through the introduction of a black stone reflection pool along most of the path. Water naturally flowing down and normally pooling on the path will be used to fill the pool. During dry seasons the shiny black stone will instead be used for reflection. The user can thus experience the sky reflecting back at them from the pool at their feet, creating a connection between sky and ground.
To create a more effective gateway between nature and city, “then” and “now”, putting the reflection pond at different levels on the path was explored. This in turn led to the idea of creating a covered underground pool that would still be filled with rainwater.
A precedent study on reflection ponds brought attention to underground pools in a artificial cave like structures. These pools are naturally filled with rainwater through carefully placed holes in the ceiling, mimicking holes in the ceiling of a natural cave structure. These holes also act as light wells that reflect sunlight into the rooms to illuminate them and allow for reflection in the shallow pools below. The roof of the structure is a green roof and allows for users to walk over the cave like rooms and view the pools through the light wells.
The Braamfontein cemetery structure slowly evolved from a single reflection pool spanning the full length of the seventy five meter path to spanning half of the path, from north to south, and then dropping down two and a half meters into the ground. Starting at the south end of the path walking north a ramp slowly runs down the two and half meters into the ground submerging the user away from the city noise and the now. When reaching the bottom of the ramp the underground black stone reflection pond runs a further ten meters allowing the user to experience silence. At the end of the underground room, steps take the user back up to ground level re-emerging the mind into what has turned into nature sounds.
The final design decision was on how to create a roof for the underground room that allows the user to still use the space above ground and place emphases on the aged headstones along the path while blocking any unwanted city noise.
To allow the space to be used a green roof covered in grass was selected. For light and rainwater to enter, light wells were placed along the roof. The final bit of the design was how to shape the roof to block noise from the south end of the path, so mostly nature sounds are heard when re-emerging out of the underground room in the middle of the path. The form of a sound wave becoming bigger as sound gets louder was implemented. This blocks the sounds and created spaces on the roof where user can sit and lean against to relax and reflect.