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Irreligious Conversions

October 20, 2016 /

By Oana Rus

Faced with shrinking congregations and forced to adapt their buildings, the church as an institution is far from being too permissive about the new function of their old buildings. How can we preserve and adapt them to our current needs and values without disrespecting the church as an institution, the church as a building (with its architectural values) and the church as a gathering place for the community?

Briefly going through history, it is indisputable the important role that churches have played for both the individual and the community. Above all details of religion and ideology, churches were built for people as gathering and contemplation places, and there is no point in denying its part in the collective memory of a community. Perhaps this is why worship places are among the building typologies that have been best preserved from ancient times. However, in the 21st century we find ourselves having a high number of these buildings left without a viable function.

A key thing to remember is that churches have been used historically for other functions, from impromptu hospitals and nursing facilities to military bases in times of war. However, more often than not, the church prefers tearing down its own buildings rather than adapting them to a new function that is considered contradictory to what the church stands for. Regardless, there are several contemporary examples of church transformation that demonstrate a varied approach to the preservation of this building typology.

Despite the fact that adapting a former church to a bar seems to be a radical solution that would affect the public image of the church as an establishment, numerous examples show it as a growing trend of adaptation. While the gathering of people vaguely resembles the church's moral initiative of creating community, one can argue that the reason behind it is against religious beliefs. Nonetheless, the fact remains that due to the spatial requirements of a bar, it is far more likely that during the adaptation process, the architectural values of the church would not suffer extreme and irreversible alterations. Moreover, the conversion of a disused church into a bar has the huge advantage of keeping the interior space public, therefore allowing it to be part of the daily life of a community.

Martikirke-Bielefelder-Architects-1.jpgMartinikirke built in the 19th  century is a perfect example on how a respectful conversion to a bar allows for a contemporary use as well as a future reconversion to its old function, as the space qualities have been preserved and enhanced. © 2004 Matinikirke

A contrasting type of church transformation is the conversion to homes or apartments. While this function seems to please the church more, a number of reasons against it cannot be dismissed. The most striking one is changing the character of the space from public to private. Churches were built from ancient times as public buildings for the community, most of them even using communal money for their construction. Therefore, closing them down for the public not only seems immoral but also fraudulent. The matter seems even more controversial when dealing with historical churches, as they are buildings that have grown to be part of the collective memory of a community. Arguably, the transformation of a worship place to a personal home jeopardizes the architectural qualities of the building, since the space itself is at risk of being compartmentalized horizontally and vertically, thus losing character.

Westbourne-Grove-Church-DOS-Architects-2.jpgWestbourne Grove Church in London is a converted church into an apartment and although it has been made with respect to the church's architecture, the change from public space to a private one is one of the biggest flaws of this type of conversions. © 2008 Dos Architects

Another type of conversion is up for debate, which is arguably less controversial from more than one standpoint. Transforming a church into a community center not only is on the same terms with the church's official attitude in helping the people, but due to the permissive character of this type of space, it can be used as differently as to fit the needs and preferences of most if not all types of citizens that form a community. Allowing free access to the space not only keeps the building within the interests of the locals, but also allows it to remain a hotspot in a contemporary life routine. Moreover, considering the multifunctional character of the space, the risk of compartmentalizing and dividing the space is at a minimum, therefore preserving if not enhancing the spatial qualities.

Absalon-Arcgency-3.jpgAbsalon kirke in Copenhagen is one of the best examples of a church used as a community center, with various activities for people to gather. © 2013 Mathis Skafte Andersen

Acknowledging that adaptive reuse itself is a sensitive subject, several points must be kept in mind when dealing with disused churches. Respect with regards to both the building itself and its previous function is crucial but highly debatable. Nonetheless, the most important aspect is the public character of such spaces, which allows the community to be actively involved in routine activities, such as in a community center. While converting a former church to a bar may seem controversial in terms of function, a contemporary home in an old church is unacceptable from more than one standpoint, as it removes the building from the public sphere.

Regardless of personal or religious beliefs, it is crucial to argue for the conservation of the church as a public space along with its architectural values and against the privatization of architectural monuments.

Last updated: October 21, 2016

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