In San Jose, California, one of the few tourist attractions you can visit is a house. A particularly large one — the Winchester Mystery House — which supposedly hosts 150 rooms, 40 bedrooms, 2 ballrooms and over 45 fireplaces. Should you go, you’ll perhaps note some of the oddities: upside-down columns, stairs that ascend to ceilings or doors that open to three-story drops.
You’ll also hear a lot about death.
Death is written into the house’s foundations, its support beams bones and its hallways dried-up veins. Its empty stomach was built for grief to fill. Sarah Winchester, the original owner of the house, began its construction in 1884 with a $20 million inheritance following the death of her baby daughter and husband. Tragedy and despair plagued her; they were her greatest tools in the ensuing construction of the house’s seven stories and innumerable mystifying curiosities.
As the legend goes: A medium back in Sarah’s hometown of Boston encouraged her to never stop the construction of this new house out West, or else every spirit killed by a Winchester rifle would continue to curse her. Sarah built endlessly to put distance between herself and her ghosts, negative space overflowing the rafters and inviting death to sink into the skin of the dwelling. The house was reduced to four floors following the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, but Sarah continued to build up until the very end. Her death in 1922 ceased construction.
The Winchester House still stands today, with tours available for all those who wish to see it. The architectural anomalies and oddities are enticing, but the mere existence of a house built to satisfy ghosts raises a pressing question: Was Sarah Winchester building through death, or was she building for it?
Places built for death live all over. They live in the stories surrounding the Winchester House; they live in cemeteries; they live in video games and novels and movies; and they have been living with us in various forms since the very first conception of death. When we hear of places built for death, it’s uncommon to immediately think of homes. This is a testament to how our collective understandings of death have shifted over generations. What once was thought to be a natural setting for death may now be uncommon for that purpose, and the places we currently build to house death may one day be abandoned for newer models.
Places built for death live all over. They live in the stories surrounding the Winchester House; they live in cemeteries; they live in video games and novels and movies; and they have been living with us in various forms since the very first conception of death.
Places built for death live all over. But places built for death can die, too.
Architect Alison Killing explores these shifts in her TED talk, “There’s a better way to die, and architecture could help.” She begins by outlining our early conceptions of where death is located. “A hundred years ago, we tended to die of infectious diseases like pneumonia, that, if they took hold, would take us away quite quickly,” she says. “We tended to die at home, in our own beds, looked after by family, although that was the default option because a lot of people lacked access to medical care.” Home was once the predominant place for both life and death — one and the same. There was no separation of where life was conceived, considering midwifery and at-home births, and where life ended. Families invited death in as a returning visitor. Its presence in the home was practically a given.
Eventually, as Killing suggests, the construction of hospitals ensued. According to Killing, “we now tend to die of cancer and heart disease, and what that means is that many of us will have a long period of chronic illness at the end of our lives. During that period, we’ll likely spend a lot of time in hospitals and hospices and care homes.” These places, alternatively to the common house, are specifically designed for the purpose of health and death. People die less frequently in the home, so there’s a stark separation between places for life and places for death. Death now triumphs in the places that are built for its presence.
Killing capitalizes on this with her research project and interactive exhibit, “Death in Venice.” Initially showcased in Venice in 2014, the exhibit visually presents the relationship between death and architecture in London during the last century. A map of the city features lights as the years drag on, indicating when construction of new hospitals, hospices, crematoria and cemeteries began. Every other building on the map is hidden, forcing the audience to envision the changing landscape solely through its deathly architecture.
Killing hopes we, the audience, will “think about what you think a good death is, and what you think that architecture that supports a good death might be like.” In a shifting landscape of death, where settings are never concrete and their connotations are never stagnant, it’s difficult to narrowly pinpoint what deathly architecture looks like — or should look like — in the real world. But there’s at least one way in which we can envision this — a way to test and poke at our relationship with death without having to endure the slow architectural progression in the real world: fiction. Fiction is a prime medium for exploring death and architecture, metaphorical or physical. With it, we can flexibly sift through the possibilities of what death might represent in our architecture and the concerns we have in inviting it into our spaces or condemning its presence.
In a shifting landscape of death, where settings are never concrete and their connotations are never stagnant, it’s difficult to narrowly pinpoint what deathly architecture looks like — or should look like — in the real world.
It’s true that it’s unclear just how much of the Winchester House legend is fiction, but its themes are still apparent. In another tale, though, a similar message stands without this ambiguity, for it’s through the medium of fiction that the suspension of disbelief sweeps away our concerns for its realism, and instead allows us to focus on the ways imagined places can be built for death.
“What Remains of Edith Finch” is a 2017 video game developed by Giant Sparrow and published by Annapurna Games. Players follow the story of character Edith Finch as they traverse her childhood home, in which almost all of her family members have died. The family deemed it a curse — that every member in each generation except one will pass in the most unusual of ways. The house consists of locked rooms of the dead, secret passageways and precarious extensions lofted far above the house’s base. Every room of a late family member unlocks a playable tale of how that person died, or at least a heavily romanticized version of it, like a little girl turning into an owl, a baby drowning in a bathtub or a deer pushing a man off a cliff. Despite the blatant themes of mortality, the tone remains generally bittersweet and dream-like, which creative director Ian Dallas reaffirms as a very intentional effort.
“Our intent has never been to scare anyone,” Dallas says. “I’d say it’s more about creating a sense of curiosity and unease. Which is not to say the game isn’t scary for many people. It comes down to how you as a person deal with the unknown. And this is a game that hopefully gives you a chance to explore that feeling.”
Edith’s family is large — so, too, is the Finch’s house. In knowing this curse, in knowing they were going to have to make room for death, the Finches built a place to sustain its commanding presence. Dallas explains that “(the Finch house is) a place where you can feel the weight of many people making small adjustments to it over a long period, imprinting themselves and their concerns on the landscape around them.” Here we witness the remains of the houses we used to die in before the introduction of hospitals. Here we see the remains of cities that change their landscape for the inclusion of death. In “What Remains of Edith Finch,” the player is forced to reconcile their own conceptions of death and its representations in familiar places. They are asked if this is what death looks like — if this is what it should look like: an empty house, locked rooms and a space for memories to take root.
Ultimately, it’s doubtless that “What Remains of Edith Finch” is not explicitly a tale of building for death or through death, but more generally, building with death. Though they were similarly cursed, Sarah Winchester built empty space to exist apart from death, and the Finch family built a livable space to coexist with death.
Through this distinction we see the versatility of the relationship between death and architecture. In its shadows, though, there’s a more confrontational reality — how we decide to place ourselves in relation to death. When we allocate where death resides, we determine our distance and comfortability with it. When we build houses assuming death to regularly return, we obscure the unknown with familiar walls. When we build hospitals to push the process of dying further from this familiarity, we draw a clear line between life and death. When we build to escape death, we oust it as a villain. When we build to house death, we invite it in as a guest. Whether it be stairs that lead to nowhere, elaborate medical centers, or locked and empty rooms, death’s gateways into our world appear in different forms and with different purposes. As the architects of these arrangements, we ultimately design our own deaths.