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Ideas | Henry H. Kuehn

The surprisingly non-egomaniacal gravestones of architects

The US Department of Housing & Urban Development building in Washington, D.C. It was built by architect Marcel Breuer and is one of several example of brutalism in the city.
The US Department of Housing & Urban Development building in Washington, D.C. It was built by architect Marcel Breuer and is one of several example of brutalism in the city.(Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken)

When I first started researching the places where famous architects are buried, I imagined that many of them would have left big, self-congratulatory monuments behind. Here, after all, were the people who shaped the face of America over centuries. It seemed logical that the most influential architects would have put some thought and effort into how they themselves would be remembered.

As it turns out, very few architects have grave markers that capture their own style. Far from designing self-aggrandizing memorials to themselves, few seemed to put much thought at all into what their final resting place would look like. Most of the people who created landmark structures during their times are still quite like the rest of us, avoiding an uncomfortable topic and leaving it up to their survivors to settle on a fitting memorial.

Here are the gravesites of three architects with strong Massachusetts connections.

<b>Alvar Aalto, 1989-1976</b>: A former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Aalto designed Baker House, an MIT dormitory acclaimed for its serpentine brick walls and its unique use of wood. His grave marker, in his native Finland, is imposing but elegant. It was designed by his second wife, Elissa, who was also an architect.
<b>Alvar Aalto, 1989-1976</b>: A former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Aalto designed Baker House, an MIT dormitory acclaimed for its serpentine brick walls and its unique use of wood. His grave marker, in his native Finland, is imposing but elegant. It was designed by his second wife, Elissa, who was also an architect.
<b>Charles Bulfinch, 1763-1844</b>: The designer of the Massachusetts State House has an elaborate, even boastful memorial that occupies a choice spot in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. An enormous ceremonial urn tops a stone column on which Bulfinch’s many achievements are boldly inscribed.
<b>Charles Bulfinch, 1763-1844</b>: The designer of the Massachusetts State House has an elaborate, even boastful memorial that occupies a choice spot in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. An enormous ceremonial urn tops a stone column on which Bulfinch’s many achievements are boldly inscribed.
<b>Marcel Breuer, 1902-1981</b>: At the opposite extreme is this self-deprecating memorial. The German-born Bauhaus architect’s ashes are buried beneath a block of granite on the site of a Wellfleet home he designed for himself. The markings on the stone were reportedly chosen by the deceased himself: “Here lies Breuer who broke his knee entirely of his own stupidity.”
<b>Marcel Breuer, 1902-1981</b>: At the opposite extreme is this self-deprecating memorial. The German-born Bauhaus architect’s ashes are buried beneath a block of granite on the site of a Wellfleet home he designed for himself. The markings on the stone were reportedly chosen by the deceased himself: “Here lies Breuer who broke his knee entirely of his own stupidity.”


Henry H. Kuehn is the author of “Architects’ Gravesites: A Serendipitous Guide.”