Every Irish town has a church, one at least, well-positioned locally; a place traditionally of communion and memory, now part of a wider trend of underuse, heading towards abandonment. A unique model for repurposing vacant churches has emerged in Flanders, offering a path to reuse rather than redundancy.
The Flemish model illustrates the revitalisation potential of underused Irish churches. Image courtesy TV Tom Thys architecten - Studio Roma i.s.m. Sven Sterken (KU Leuven)
Church vacancy doesn’t have to lead to the destruction of sites of collective experience.
Every Irish town has a church, one at least, well-positioned locally; a place traditionally of communion and continually of memory, now part of a Western European trend of underuse and heading towards abandonment .
A unique model of research-by-design for repurposing vacant churches has emerged in Flanders that is instructive for Ireland, given our mirrored societal shift from the dominance of Catholicism.
Dialogue is emerging around the cultural value and significance of Irish churches, as their potential for reuse, and for better understanding ourselves as a society, is explored. In their exhibition at Housing Unlocked, David Lawless and Sophie Kelliher proposed adapting thirty-three Dublin churches for housing, churches that had been put forward by the Archdiocese for rezoning and rejected by Dublin City Council . Since then, thirty-two further churches have been listed by the council for Residential Zoned Land Tax, though the Archdiocese has appealed this decision .
Making Dust, by artist and researcher Fiona Hallinan, in collaboration with Ellen Rowley – currently at VISUAL Carlow – documents the arguably needless 2021 demolition of the Church of the Annunciation, a modernist landmark in Finglas, and the impact of that loss on a community. Giving attention to what was an important ‘space for communal experience and the rituals that mark the progress of life, whether cathartic or complicated in nature’,  the work raises questions about the protection of the places and behaviours that our communities value.
Church vacancy doesn’t have to lead to the destruction of sites of collective experience, and with an eye too on the global climate emergency, demolition should be considered a last resort. Since the introduction of church policy plans in Flanders in 2011, whereby municipalities and church boards were invited to outline a long-term vision for the future use of every parish church, over one third of all parish churches, about six-hundred in total, have been listed for complete or partial repurposing .
The Projectbureau Herbestemming Kerken(Project Office for Adaptive Reuse of Churches), or PHK, was established in 2016 to provide secular guidance for furthering church policy plans, by way of feasibility studies and assisting with funding applications. The feasibility studies, requested by local authorities for specific churches and carried out by multidisciplinary design teams, have numbered over sixty a year, and are collated online .
Adapting underused or vacant churches in Ireland would be in line with government policy: since 2022, the Town Centre First approach emphasises the role of sustainable reuse and repurposing of existing building stock and assets in revitalising Irish towns. While the policy document recognises the detrimental effects of vacant and derelict properties on the ‘vitality and attractiveness’ of towns, the only mention of a church building is praise for McCullough Mulvin Architects’ adaptive reuse of St Mary’s in Kilkenny. This exemplary project transforms the thirteenth-century church into a museum and has been central to the ‘delivery of social, cultural benefit to a community’ .
Though church reuse in Ireland faces the obvious obstacle of land ownership, and issues around secular occupation of sacred space, in Flanders this is overcome partly thanks to a Napoleonic structure – still in existence – where fabric committees (five laypeople appointed by the bishop) are responsible for the secular organisation of religious practice, including the maintenance of church buildings. As potential deficits in the budget of fabric committees are paid by local municipalities or the province, the responsibility for redundant churches is shared .
Through the work of the PHK, redundancy makes way for the potential regeneration of towns and villages, and feasibility studies and open competitions allow for contributions from potential designers, no matter the size or age of their practice . In an Irish context, the opportunity to contribute high-quality research-by-design would be available to young and/or small architecture practices – whose innovation and energy are often confined to domestic projects and their reconfigurations – as well as to more established firms with extensive experience and high turnover.
While we have some fine precedent examples of adaptive reuse of churches in Ireland (Rush Library, another McCullough Mulvin project, is worth visiting), exploring the PHK’s research reveals surprising ideas, like the reimagining of the church of Don Bosco, St Niklas, by Open Kerk Studio as a sports hall, through the introduction of a raised floor that integrates the heating systems while protecting the original tiles . While some design teams have focused on developing a methodology that can be applied to any church, and others have tested extreme conditions of site-specific intervention, interesting commonalities have emerged across a multitude of design proposals, such as a desire among designers and communities to retain some space for refuge, contemplation, and reflection, as was historically found in church buildings .
One critique of the PHK is that it has yet to bring a design project to site, but it has created a body of research that illustrates the potential for underused churches in Irish towns to become significant sites of revitalisation and community.
Interesting commonalities have emerged across a multitude of design proposals, such as the desire among designers and communities to retain some space for refuge, contemplation, and reflection, as was historically found in church buildings.
One Good Idea is a series of articles which focuses on the simple, concise discussion of a complex spatial issue. Each piece is presented as a starting point towards a topic that the author believes should be part of broader public discourse. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
One Good Idea is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
1. Religion, European Values Study, [website], 2018, https://europeanvaluesstudy.eu/about-evs/research-topics/religion, (accessed 6 March 2023).
2. S. Kelliher, D. Lawless, ‘Thirty-Three Churches’, Housing Unlocked, Irish Architecture Foundation, 2022.
3. A. Beesley, ‘Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin seeks to delist dozens of churches and parish centres from a new tax’, The Irish Times, 15 February 2023.
4. F. Hallinan, ‘We Turn Towards an Ending and Pay Attention’, VISUAL, 2023.
5. S. Sterken and C. Ardui, unpublished research paper, KU Leuven, ongoing.
6. ‘Repurposing Churches’, Vlaamsbouwmeester (Flemish Government Architect), [website] https://www.vlaamsbouwmeester.be/nl/kerken, (accessed March 6 2023).
7. Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Department of Rural and Community Development, Town Centre First: A Policy Approach for Irish Towns, Government of Ireland, 2022.
8. J. Dancker, ‘The Future of Parish Churches in Flanders, Belgium: A Dialogue on Municipality Level’, in_bo, vol. 10, 2016.
9. ‘Repurposing Churches’, Vlaamsbouwmeester (Flemish Government Architect), [website] https://www.vlaamsbouwmeester.be/nl/kerken, (accessed March 6 2023).
10. Studio Open Kerk, Endeavour [website], 2021, https://endeavours.eu/project/studio-repurposing-churches, (accessed March 8 2023).
11. S. Sterken and C. Ardui, unpublished research paper, KU Leuven, ongoing.
Beibhinn Delaney is an architectural assistant at Donaghy + Dimond Architects. She previously worked with Tom Thys architecten on social and affordable housing projects and the adaptive reuse of churches in Flanders, and with Henry J Lyons on the Sorting Office and Ropemaker Place in Dublin’s Docklands. Her ongoing research into church repurposing is supported by the Arts Council, with guidance from Prof. Sven Sterken and Charlotte Ardui of KU Leuven.
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