The churches in our downtown ecclesiastical district are buildings that transcend time, and not just in the sense that they are old. For many, it’s as though they have always been there and always will. But churches in many cities throughout Canada are faced with an uncertain future. They are losing their congregations, and struggling with the high costs of maintenance associated with old buildings. The problem hasn’t been as apparent in St. John’s yet, but may be on the horizon. This looming crisis of ecclesiastical structures is causing people to start re-evaluating just how important these buildings are, and what their role is in the community.
What to do with abandoned or underused churches has been on the minds of many people in the heritage industry, urban planning, and developers alike. It’s a matter of balancing the often conflicting interests of stakeholder groups. The community and church groups are invested in the property and see it as a public space with historical importance. Municipal governments see the architecture as a valuable cultural resource. And of course, developers see prime real estate that rarely becomes available.
But those aren’t the only problems. Transforming property for re-use for commercial, residential, or institutional purposes isn’t so straightforward when dealing with a church. They often don’t have the types of spaces that can be neatly divided into offices or apartments. They can be very expensive to heat, and often need detailed restoration work. Sometimes they are even impossible to update to today’s standards of accessibility and fire safety. Attractive and inspiring spaces to be in—yes, but a hard to fit into a developer’s profit logic.
Some adaptive reuse projects have been able to negotiate these challenges though. The Notre-Dame-De-Jacques-Cartier Church in Quebec City converted part of their space into rental units for social and community groups. The Calvary United Methodist Church in Philadelphia adopted five other congregations and incorporated secular events into their program.
But perhaps the most well known and celebrated example of adaptive church re-use would be the Selexyz Bookshop in Maastricht, Netherlands. It’s a huge 13th century Dominican church that was transformed into a branch of the popular bookseller Selexyz. Architects Merkx + Girod approached the space with the idea of accentuating the building’s existing attributes, like the extremely high open spaces, and the medieval vaulted ceilings. In fact, going up was the only way to get enough square footage in to make the store profitable. The main feature of the space is a towering black steel stack of walk-in bookshelves; it’s contrasting nature doesn’t take away from the existing architecture, and although it’s a massive structure, its appears light and lofty due to a savvy use of perforated metal throughout.
Shoppers have described browsing the shelves in this space as an enlightening experience. The three storey high bookshelves have stairs, but also a lift that take you up to the top, where you can view the restored 14th century murals. The vastness and quietude is perfect for reading, but moreover it’s a contemplative space that engages people with the timelessness of the surrounding architecture.
There was a time when the beauty of a church and its ability to overwhelm the senses through the gloriousness of its architecture was part of the spiritual experience. Now, places that people go to be spiritually inspired are manifesting in a different form: big boxes on the sides of highways. The buildings left in the wake of this social change will require a great degree of creativity to find ideas that will be profitable—and at the same time, prioritize architecture.