Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Past in the Present: Adaptive church re-use

In this series, The Past in the Present, we explore how the historic urban character of a city can be part of a dynamic and continually evolving contemporary society, with an aim to spark debate on the topic of conservation and heritage in our cities and further afield.

Series Curated by Ailish Killilea & Anna Skoura

As times are changing, religious needs are changing too. Less people go to services, resulting with a number of churches left unused and subject to decay. As churches are in most cases buildings with historic and architectural interest, valued by the community, it is imperative to consider their conservation.

But preservation without reuse is not easy to justify or finance, especially in the midst of an economic recession. It is also true that there are a great number of historic buildings eligible for re-use and they all compete against each other for the limited resources associated with this type of development. Sadly, churches offer limited appeal due to their inherent difficulties to convert. Nevertheless, there are a number of very successful examples of reused churches that demonstrate how with appropriate interventions the building can be suited for a number of purposes with very alluring results and can prove a unique visitor/user experience.

Most people in Belfast would be familiar with the Belfast Empire Music Hall, a Victorian era church now converted to a boosting nightlife venue. But this is not the only successful example.

One of the most discussed and impressive examples is the Selexyz Bookstore in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. The 13th century Dominican church is since 2007 housing a project ordered by the company Boekhandels Groep Nederland and carried out by the architecture firm Merkx and Girod. The new installations are highlighted by a towering, three-storey black steel book-stack stretching up to the stone vaults, taking advantage of the buildings' height and underlining the church's vertical character.Customers and visitors are able to enjoy the space over a cup of tea or coffee in the caf矇 situated in the former choir. In 2008 Jonathan Glancey of the Guardian considered this as probably the world's finest bookshop!
Selexyz Bookstore in Maastricht, photo from 4nitsirk on

Selexyz Bookstoret, photo from teemu-mantynen on

Cultural centres are considered to be most appropriate functions for former churches, since the buildings can remain part of the community and be open to the public.

A very good example is the Christchurch in Belfast, a neoclassical Georgian church built in 1832 to the designs of Dublin architect William Farrell. Having suffered a declining congregation the church closed and was deconsecrated in the early 1990s. Situated in a difficult location,it was the victim of many attacks and faced a demolition threat in the late 1990s . Fortunately an agreement was reached, with the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust (BBPT) undertaking the restoration work while the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI) being responsible for the building's management. Christchurch now accommodates the library and IT centre of the RBAI as well as plays host to community events.
Find out more: click here.
Christchurch in Belfast, image via
Christchurch in Belfast, image via Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust

Another church of similar architecture style is the Triskel Christchurch in Cork, Republic of Ireland, also an 18th century neoclassical Georgian building by architect John Coltsman, previously a church of Ireland parish church. It ceased to function as a place of worship in 1978and has since then been a property of the Cork City Council. A refurbishment project started in 2008, led by architect Helen Dewitt, resulting to the recently completed Triskel Arts Centre.

A number of churches have been used for residential purposes. St. Jakobus church in Utrecht,the Netherlands was built in1870. After church operations ceased in 1991 the building was used sparingly for special events. In 2007 a residential conversion was proposed by Zecc Architects and the project was completed in 2009.The church's interior has been whitewashed and combined with minimalist furniture in basic black and wood resulting to a very bright, simple, contemporary house.
St. Jakobus church in Utrecht, image via Zecc architects
St. Jakobus church in Utrecht, image via Zecc architects

A very different approach is taken by the DIY-type of company in England, which helps transforming Anglican churches into private residential houses. The feeling of living in an old church is emphasized by keeping the building's historic fabric prominent and using warmer, complementary materials and colors for the new additions.
St. Mathew's church in Littleport, image via

One of the churches in Belfast that urgently needs conservation and a suitable function is the Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church. Located on the edge of the inner-city, it was completed in 1875, designed in Gothic Revival style by architect W. H. Lynn. The church ceased to be used as a place of worship in 1982 and has suffered extensive physical degradation. Despite being in the 2010 World Monuments Watch list, there are no plans for it in the near future.
Carlisle Memorial Methodist church in Belfast - image via the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust
Inspired by the examples presented, what are your suggestions for reusing the Carlisle Memorial?

1 comment:

Arthur Acheson said...

I think the former Carlisle Memorial Church should become the Great Hall of the new university campus that is forecast for Belfast by the University of Ulster. I would like to see the campus embracing and defining the cultural corridor that we have spoken about for over 12 years in Belfast. As well as the former church, the cultural corridor includes important and historic derelict buildings and sites including the Crumlin Road former courthouse and the Girdwood Park former barracks site. Arthur Acheson