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As Western society becomes less Christian, redundant churches are increasingly being converted into everything from nightclubs to bookshops.

Abandoned churches are increasingly being transformed, taking on a new, secondary, secular life. Converting them in a balanced, respectful way is an architectural challenge.



When the Limelight opened in New York in 1983, first as a disco and rock venue before becoming a techno club, revelers couldn't believe their luck. They were partying in a deconsecrated church. Rather than wearing their Sunday best to pray and sing hymns, people were turning up in droves dressed in the latest fashions to dance and drink. The transformation of the church from a place of religious worship to one for nightlife leisure seemed thrilling.
As congregation numbers in Europe and the United States continue to dwindle as society becomes more multicultural and less Christian, more and more churches are being abandoned. Often, the local town council cannot afford to maintain the building's upkeep and hands it over to developers. The once religious structure takes on a new, secular life. Sometimes the churches are converted into private apartments, sometimes into public places such as hotels, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, stores or art galleries. While purists may find this reality disheartening, the alternative is that the redundant church may remain neglected or be demolished.

Indeed, when Estudio FAM (www.estudiofam.com) was asked to convert the San Agustin church in San Cristóbal de la Laguna, a World Heritage UNESCO site in Tenerife, the burnt building had been disused for decades.
"After the church caught fire in 1964, there was no money for reconstruction and the city planners and other councilors preferred to keep it as a burnt building," says Esau Acosta, the project architect. "It was only three years ago that they said, 'OK, we have to use this space. What shall we do with it?' So they launched an international competition that we won."
The church, which had also contained a convent, had been destroyed except for its main walls, the stone arches and the altar. The roofless building was being used by a homeless association for people to grow vegetables. Now Estudio FAM is transforming it into a mediatech that will also include spaces for an art school, a café-shop and conferences.
"When you go inside it, there is a special feeling because you feel protected by very big, wide, stone walls but because there is no roof you can feel the sun and the clouds," Acosta continues. "We are going to build a special roof made of wooden beams and glass that will filter the sun's rays."



"Churches can be a heavy burden in terms of ongoing maintenance, and there are examples of churches that haven't been able to find new uses falling into disrepair," says Richard Pears, an associate director of ZM Architecture (www.zmarchitecture.co.uk). "So that's why this kind of flexibility has been extended. It's important that any use is sustainable to generate sufficient funds as a business and to sustain the building's fabric."
ZM Architecture reconverted the former Kelvinside Parish Church in Glasgow into Òran Mór, meaning "the great melody of life" or "big song." Located in the city's West End, Òran Mór opened in 2004 and houses two bars, two restaurants, a nightclub and a private event space. The reconstruction involved creating a new, first floor space where the church's balcony had previously been.
"There were two requirements," explains Pears, "restoring the building's fabric, including the stone and the stained glass windows, and implementing the program's use of the building. It was about balancing the client's needs with those of the authorities, Historic Scotland." Indeed, the former church is a B-listed building, and the internal volume of the crypt, nave and aisles had to be respected.
Another important development was how the client, Skerryvore Ltd, commissioned local artist Alasdair Gray to create a stunning celestial ceiling. It has become one of Scotland's largest pieces of public art. "Even now, five years after completion, Alasdair Gray is still working on refining the building," says Pears. "It's a very visually powerful feature."



The best examples of reconverted churches manage to retain their atmospheric character. Take the Selexyz Dominicanen bookshop in Maastricht, an apt adaptation given how the Bible is the biggest bestseller of all time. The bookshop is housed in a thirteenth century Dominican church that was once part of a friary. Napoleon drove the Dominicans out in 1794 and, after a brief stint as a parish church, the Gothic prayer hall, which has no tower or transepts in keeping with the Dominicans' rules, was turned into a warehouse and later into an indoor bike pound until last Christmas. This spring, the building was reincarnated as a bookstore designed by Merkx+Girod (www.merkx-girod.nl), the Dutch firm that remodeled Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum.
Merkx+Girod has installed a three-story, black, steel bookshelf structure in the nave and a café in the choir. The café includes a long, cruciform table lit by a halo of artificial light. Along the nave are remains of ceiling paintings from 1337 and exposed frescos of saints and sinners dating from 1619 by Jan Vessens. In the future another fresco wall depicting the life of the Dominican philosopher St Thomas Aquinas will also be restored.
"The Dominican church in Maastricht strikes just the right note [about converting a church for contemporary use]," says Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian's architecture critic. "Its architects deserve a blessing. A church is a prayer set in stone, and even if we do not use them as they were intended, their very presence is reassuring and comforting, reminding us that there is more to life than getting and spending, trade and toil. We need to think up new uses for old churches, but we must also consider ways of converting them without altering their venerable fabric."

"Eglises Reconverties" is published by Editions Ereme. editions.ereme@wanadoo.fr

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