A hotel, a bar, a skatepark, a club, a restaurant, an apartment building – you may be wondering what the point of creating this list of typical establishments in your average city could be. In fact, their purpose is clear and widely known to all. It may come as a surprise that contemporary architects have proved that any of these functions can also be fulfilled by a revitalised place of worship.
Adaptation to a new function, aiming to bring abandoned historic churches back to life, is a popular practice in Western Europe and the US. In many cases, the neglected buildings stand in ruin for many years before getting their shot at a new life. Shrinking congregations, erection of more modern facilities, structural damage dating back to wartime, and overwhelming maintenance costs are just some of the principal reasons why church administrators decide to sell the empty buildings they manage.
A hotspot of these revitalised cult places is the Netherlands, where some of the most interesting projects to date have been realised. Take the Kruisherenhotel in Maastricht, for example. Once a 15th-century monastery, it has recently been adapted for a luxurious five-star hotel. The hotel’s restaurant, located in the naves, opens up to a breathtaking view of Gothic vaults. It is worth mentioning that the city has one more example of a successful conversion – the country’s earliest example of a Gothic church has been turned into a one-of-a-kind shrine… of literature, for it is home to a popular Dutch chain bookstore.
Even in the case of relatively small parish churches, their high naves offer enough space to create comfortable and unconventional living spaces, where modern furniture strikes an intriguing contrast with ancient masonry. A kitchen island in lieu of an altar mensa, or a monumental stained glass window in the bedroom can come as a complete surprise to some; however, they certainly take these designs to the next level of creativity and sophistication.
Adaptation of former church spaces comes with great potential for controversy. At O’Neills in North London, the main icon enshrined is a beer keg, for this 1902 church has been serving its community as a pub for the past few years. An even more polarizing example can be found in Denver, Colorado, where a 19th century church has been turned into a unique club and music venue known as – you guessed it – The Church.
But our personal prize for the most outside-the-box adaptation goes to the Kaos Temple in Northern Spain, where a small, hundred-year-old church has been transformed into a public skatepark. Vibrant, mesmerizing murals painted on the walls and vaults by Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel complete its urban-style makeover.
For many members of the Christian community, deconsecration and re-adaptation of former places of worship may be seen as a blasphemous act. However, let’s not forget that many of these neglected churches are precious examples of architectural heritage whose preservation as historical monuments is vital for future generations. As our cities and communities change alongside the world around them, a synthesis of old and new becomes an intrinsic part of that evolution process.