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“Visitors centre’ doesn’t quite encompass the full purpose of this building,” explains the design team composed of California-based architecture firm OpenScope Studio and landscape architecture and urban design collaborative Fletcher Studio. Indeed, as the only building on Better Place Forests’ 20-acre site along the Mendocino coast in California, the edifice acts as a multi-functional hub, bringing together physical, spiritual, memorial and forest conservation aspects together under one roof.

Better Place Forests is a growing network of sites across the United States where families can select a specific tree to mark the place where they spread the ashes of loved ones. The ashes are mixed with soil at the base of the tree, poetically continuing the lifecycle of the forest and remaining accessible for generations of visitors. As the network offers a sustainable alternative to traditional cremation ceremonies – one that both protects and connects deeply with nature – it was critical that a building at their Point Arena location fulfill not only a key programmatic use, but also, according to the design team, “to complement, rather than detract from, the magnificent setting.”

As a point of orientation for visitors in the redwood forest, the centre is carefully perched on the crest of a wooded area along the site’s edge. Propped up by piers, it takes advantage of an open meadow below and remains easily accessible from the entry road. In form, the structure is a simple rectangle bisected by a narrow void, with irregular insets on either side to create deep overhangs. A covered deck extends out to views of an open-air memorial area and provides space for small gatherings and informal ceremonies.

The centre’s compact size holds just a handful of rooms: two small meeting spaces, a restroom and a staff room. Its finishes, inside and out, speak both of the location’s physical presence amidst the trees while also instilling a sense of permanence. The redwood cladding, decking and other surfaces are crafted from locally harvested, dried and milled materials, and the roof of Corten steel will weather naturally over the coming years. Carefully positioned glazing – interrupted by vertical wood-covered mullions – emphasizes outdoor views while screening the meeting rooms for privacy, and makes the centre softly glow in the evening.

“The building,” explains the design team, “is part of a larger episodic procession through the forest and through memory.” This journey begins at arrival on site and continues to a pathway of concrete pavers up to the visitors centre and then through a narrow void to the lookout deck. From there, visitors can observe the cast-concrete benches of the memorial, designed by Matsys, where the names of their loved ones are inscribed. Beyond the memorial, a network of old logging roads and trails wind through the site, creating secluded spaces that ultimately give way to views of the sea and horizon. 

The ultimate experience of being in the structure is one of intimacy, proximity to nature and above all, reverence. From its diminutive scale to its wood cladding and curated views of the landscape beyond, “[the building] is a shelter from the elements,” says the design team, “and also a place where people can just be.”

A Timber-Clad Visitors’ Centre in California Brings Solace to the End-of-Life Journey

OpenScope Studio’s building for Better Place Forests, which creates conservation memorial forests, blends public and private, physical and spiritual.

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