All Souls Chapel refurbishment exterior

What was once a cemetery chapel with a clinical interior and poor acoustics has been turned into a warm, contemporary chapel with the ability to support a growing number of denominations and offer cremation services.

Sydney’s Rookwood General Cemetery is the oldest, biggest and most multicultural cemetery in Australia. It is also one of Sydney’s most significant heritage sites.

One of the most important structures at Rookwood is the All Souls Chapel. Built in the 1950s, the Art Deco-style building is still in regular use, but required a refurbishment to bring its interiors and services up to date.

Presented with a brief to turn a clinical interior with acoustic issues into a warm and aesthetically pleasing space, the architects were inspired by the existing exterior ornament, which was incorporated in the interior and exterior upgrades.

All Souls Chapel aerial

A key part of the brief for the exterior was to create more space for visitors to congregate, regardless of numbers and weather conditions. Therefore, an elevated podium and canopy were built to provide additional capacity, while still maintaining the integrity of the building.

A continuous herringbone tiled floor was created from the road to the altar, providing a visually impactful, seamless design. The exterior modifications also incorporated ramps for wheelchair access.

Inside, a barrel-vaulted ceiling had been hidden behind flat plasterboard tiles for quite some time.

“Roodwood General Cemetery’s CEO, George Simpson, wanted to expose the original ceiling,” says Mark Kelly, managing director Australia at Weston Williamson + Partners.

“Following some investigation, we opened the roof to see what was possible. Working with an existing building you have to be flexible; a modular solution isn’t often suitable. A clip-on system of warm, hardwood timbers was designed, and a true semi-circle vault created.”

All Souls Chapel refurbishment ceiling

Customised lighting was also critical to the chapel’s refurbishment.

“Lighting has such an influence on making a space better,” says Kelly.

“Simple concepts were used in this project including wall washing to create a warm ambience. Four custom-made circular pendant lights of various sizes were hung from the ceiling. This shape reflected the cream band that wraps around the external parapets.”

The final stage of the refurbishment, and the most challenging, was the catafalque. This is a raised structure that supports the coffin during the service, and then drops to hide the coffin and simulate a cremation. The architects worked with local fabricators to design the herringbone-patterned timber skin and glass screen which also included a circular pattern.

All Souls Chapel refurbishment outdoor

The refurbishment gives Rookwood Cemetery the capability to conduct a service which resembles a regular cremation however, moving the casket to an offsite cremation facility once the ceremony is over. This process keeps costs down for both Rookwood and the community as a furnace does not need to be maintained. This new service offering is a more affordable option for families where a grave plot is not a cultural requirement.