Carmen Auer

Carmen Auer (2016), Transit Zone of the Dead: The Round Charnel House in Central Europe , Institute of Architectural Theory, Art History and Cultural Studies; 1st reviewer: Anselm Wagner, 2nd reviewer: Paul Naredi-Rainer; 652 pages, German.

The word “Karner” means charnel house in German. A Karner is a storage building for remains of the human body (i.e bones) which were excavated from the graveyard. The charnel house originates in the medieval Christian funeral culture and in the faith in resurrection. The early examples of charnel houses predominantly are freestanding roundhouses. The exterior has a Romanic shape, which forms a simple and massive cylinder with small windows, small doors and a conical roof. Characteristically, the buildings have two storeys: the ossuary is located in the basement, while a sacred room lies above it. The fact that a relatively high amount of charnel houses still exists today shows the cultural and historical relevance of this architectural phenomenon. The charnel house only played a minor part both legally and clerically, and sources are rare. Hence the building itself is the most important and most accessible source. Thus the premise is a survey and documentation of the 93 remaining charnel houses in Central Europe. The documentation proves that many round charnel houses have remained in good condition, especially in some parts of Austria. The building structure may be simple, but its expression and spatial organisation is complex and meaningful. The main part of this dissertation comprehensively and systematically analyses the preserved round charnel houses. Based on the building documentation, the dissertation deals with the following questions: Which regions and territories feature this kind of building type? How does the round charnel house interact with the topography, the graveyard, the burial place, and the church? In what way do aspects of design, building technology, spatial configuration and proportion determine the building structure? How does the condensed concept of the Karner interact with the various local building traditions and cultural practices? How did Enlightenment and the changes it brought for the funeral culture affect the architecture of the charnel houses in Central Europe? The simplicity and the archaic nature of the buildings does not fail to impress even today. The relevance of the Karner is also emphasised by its special type of construction, which does not belong to the Christian church’s usual architectural canon. This is another reason why the round charnel houses, which notably defied any clear classification in 19th century publications, have continued to stimulate our imagination. From a cultural perspective, the buildings are excellent witnesses that mirror the atmosphere of seminal and existential experiences of the past. After secularisation, the original purpose of the charnel houses has become less and less important. Today, the question is how to find a contemporary approach, apart from converting the round charnel houses to war memorials, or adapting them into funeral halls.