Architecture professor Paul Hirzel wanted to push his students out of their mindsets. So he asked them to design a single building for both the beginning and the end of life: a funeral home/ birthing center.

“The project was very daunting and invigorating,” says Hirzel.

In the final year of their pre-professional architecture program, students must test themselves by researching, designing, and developing models of a particular building. Most often, they create beautiful, interesting projects like museums or cultural or visitor centers. To design a museum, the students can go to architecture libraries and find plenty of examples for inspiration. But in assigning a building type that doesn’t exist, Hirzel wanted to disorient the students, creating such an unusual problem that they couldn’t carry their biases with them.

To design something totally new takes mental energy and tenacity, he says. It makes the students think more deeply about function and place.

To increase the challenge, he asked the students to develop their imaginary project for the city of Missoula, Montana, a community that most didn’t know. He also gave them a project with which they had little experience. Most students have spent little, if any, time in funeral homes or birthing centers.

While most studio design projects are solo efforts, Hirzel asked his students to work in teams of two, one focusing on death and the other on birth. In addition to dealing with the complexities of teamwork, the students had to reconcile what are considered opposites in our culture.

To research the project, students examined how birth and death are represented in art, philosophy, and history, says Hirzel. They visited maternity wards and interviewed mothers. They also spoke with funeral directors and looked at crematoriums. The design studio was littered with books like The Tibetan Book of the Dead, A Celebration of Death, and Birth as an American Rite of Passage. The students pondered such questions as how ashes are separated from one another in funeral pyres, and how different cultures define the moment when the soul leaves the body.

“These are discussions that most of us rarely have,” says Hirzel.

Tracey Brewer, a fourth-year architecture student from Alaska, says she found the project overwhelming at times. She and her partner struggled with the issue of separating people who had just lost someone from those who might have just experienced a birth. With an interest in eventually developing residential homes, she never imagined herself planning a funeral home/birthing center.

Her classmate Sean Beatty says he enjoyed learning how different societies view birth and death. He was impressed with how many cultures celebrate both events and find them similarly transitory. As for what all these discussions have to do with architecture, Beatty thinks the project helped him see how architecture is more than simply defining space or designing buildings. How might society change with a proliferation of combined birthing center/funeral homes that bring life and death together in celebration?

“We often overlook the power of buildings and how they define our culture,” says Beatty. “Architecture can help to shape how people perceive events and live their lives. It can be a way to influence and improve communities.”