The Xhurches project documents how religious buildings are being repurposed all over the world. Here the projects co-director Van Pham discusses how these spaces are being reimagined and what this tells us about the notion of religion, spiritual practice and community today.
Repurposing spaces in the urban landscape can be a tactic that retains some connection, however diffuse, to our past, and to preserve the visual, historical character of our built environment. Churches are frequent examples of this transformation and reuse of space.
The combination of cultural and economic changes have dotted cities and towns with under-used or vacant religious buildings. The Church of England is facing dwindling congregations numbers, leading to the question of what to do with their underutilised inventory of buildings. According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, the Church of England closes about 20 churches a year. About 200 churches in Denmark are “nonviable or underused”, over 500 churches have been closed by the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, and more dramatically, the Netherlands stands to close more than 1700 churches in the coming years. Some are converted into homes, whilst others are re-fitted to other purposes.
The variety of uses have captivated and motivated Portland-based artist Matthew Henderson and I to undertake an artistic project that examines the diverse examples of religious building adaptive reuse all over the world, called “Xhurches”. The Xhurches project began in 2010 as a self-published zine dedicated to charting the trend of adaptive reuse of religious spaces in Portland, Oregon, operating from Matt’s small church-turned-home and arts venue in the Northeast quadrant of the city that hosts a number of other church conversions, including theatres, businesses, a multi-use venue, and several homes. The Xhurches project has since expanded to become a blog that profiles examples from around the world. In 2013, we embarked on a tour of the United States’ West Coast to visit and document more than 30 such examples, from Seattle to Los Angeles.
Along the way we met people who ran theatres, internet archives, community centres, co-ops, music venues, and more. The footage is currently being compiled into episodic profiles of each site, while a larger narrative is being built into a feature length film that is currently in post-production. In the meantime, the Xhurches blog continues to grow, and our mission is to continue to advocate for the reuse, preservation, and activation of disused sites. The diversity of examples runs the gamut from the novel to the practical, musical to medicinal, simple to ornate.
Our chief interest is ‘like for like’ usage, meaning that the conversion of the religious site retains its open to the community, public-facing purposes. Ultimately, our interest here is akin to what author Nick Kaufman identifies in his 2009 book, “Place, Race, and Story: Essays on the Past and Future of Historic Preservation” as the goal of preservation work: it is not about “fixing or saving old things” but rather, a mission toward “creating places where people can live well and connect to meaningful narratives about history, culture and identity.”
Despite the many examples of inspiring and beautiful conversions of religious spaces into homes, something can be lost in the enclosure of the space for private, residential function. The exploration of new uses for churches has also fueled an inquiry regarding new forms of worship. Our modern cathedrals may be stadiums, venues, or in more fleeting disruptions, public squares where citizens may come to gather to protest, celebrate, mourn. In the case of dis- or underused churches, there is perhaps a potential to house the activities of modern ritual.
Among the many instances of reuse of historical buildings, there is a unique thread of conversions that pertain specifically to the transformation of religious buildings. It is perhaps undeniable that all buildings hold some inventory of memories and significant history, but a house of worship operates under a complex set of conditions, contexts and values. In the case of churches, the values are manifold: aesthetic, historical, and cultural.
Given economic pressures and speculative land value, it would not serve to retain all churches as shell monuments to their religious purpose well beyond their active religious use. Unless the exterior of the building is significantly altered, those aforementioned values also transfer into their contemporary lives as climbing gyms, art galleries, restaurants, gymnasiums, or homes. So there is perhaps a tension, or certain intention and care required that is not present in other conversion sites due to the very intimate nature of our sacred lives.
The Xhurches project also examines the possibly subversive implications of claiming, or re-claiming religious space. In her study on loft conversions known for transforming much of New York’s disused stock of industrial space into creative live and workspace, Sharon Zukin calls these transformations a ‘historic compromise’. The re-imagining of these sites can create a palimpsest, a historical relaying that is vital to telling the building’s story through its sustained existence.
One such history is the Union Center for the Arts in Los Angeles. The tremendous shifts that this property has seen in the last century illustrate a complex history throughout the 20th century. Formerly the Union Church, the building served as the religious home for a Japanese-American Presbyterian congregation in the 1920s, then as a preliminary site for those ordered to internment camps during WWII, during a particularly dark chapter of American history. It would also serve as a community center for African-American employment seekers during the Great Migration, before sitting derelict for years. In 1997, the Little Tokyo Service Center, a community development corporation, administered the redevelopment of the church into a multi-use arts complex, housing LA Artcore, East West Players and Visual Communications. All three organisations are dedicated to recognizing and celebrating diverse artistic work, while the latter two are specifically focused on empowering and producing the creative work of Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities.
This relationship to spiritual practice and what is left behind, what is built over, or perhaps erased in these buildings is something we often found to be present in the interviews gathered during the Xhurches tour. Some interviewees talked about the religious residue of their buildings as something that endures in the way they occupy the building, others delighted in working with the potentially subversive nature of converting a house of faith. The overarching, emergent theme from our documentary subjects was one of experimentation: to play with their notions of religion, reconcile personal histories with spiritual practice, and an attempt to reimagine these spaces and what it means for people to gather with community.
About the author
Van Pham is co-director of Xhurches.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and the Public Sphere blog, or of the London School of Economics.