• March 8, 2023

As designers, we are caretakers of a world built on generations of history and culture. The structures of our past that still stand today contain a wealth of stories of who we are and where we’ve come from, and they will tell stories long after we are gone.   

In recent years, questions around whether the growing number of disused and abandoned churches should be repurposed have been circulating, and how they should be repurposed if they are. With dwindling attendance and massive costs required for their maintenance, renovation and revival, many of these buildings dating back hundreds of years are being left behind. The clock is ticking as windows break, foundations crack, carved wood splits, and nature begins to reclaim their landscapes.

We don’t believe that churches and the heritage value they hold should be left behind or outright demolished. Churches are, much like libraries, in a state of transition: These are sanctuaries that can still be sanctuaries, and not just in the traditional sense. They can be redesigned and reimagined in ways that not only imbue them with renewed meaning, but rediscover their original purpose in wholly novel ways as well.

Illustration of Churches, Collage, Montage, Article, Lemay, Architecture, Design

A palette of possibilities

There are solutions that extend beyond demolition and releasing churches’ embodied carbon into the environment; when it comes to sustainability, the greenest architecture is the architecture that we don’t build from scratch. Instead, we can preserve them in ways that not only celebrate their craftsmanship but reapproach it in radical ways. Conserving architecture matters as it keeps the cultural memory, meaning and energy behind it alive, but this is only one colour in the palette of possibilities we can use to paint a new picture.

Shifting the practice of architecture to recycling has shown us that our built world can be retrofitted, revitalized, and reused. Recently, churches have been reconfigured into anything from condominiums, performance venues and restaurants to gyms, spas, libraries and cheese makers. However, while this speaks to their malleability, some of these repurposes have gutted their original architecture. They have, on occasion, commercialized what was once generous and made exclusive what used to be accessible to all.

These methods present solutions, but they can be at times limited in how much they can benefit everyone in richly social ways. In fact, we may not have to find a strict utility to churches, but instead change our attitude towards them and the potential ways we can experience their space. While pressure points remain around taxes and ownership, the value of land and what should happen to churches in the future persist, we can find ways to reuse churches within the current cultural milieu.

On a fundamental level, churches drive a cultural identity of place through their materials and designs, representing lost arts and culture that either can no longer be replicated or is too expensive to repeat today. By conserving them and giving them a renewed purpose, that artistry could once again be celebrated.

Our work with projects such as the 38 Walmer Road Baptist Church for Lemay’s research and design collective FLDWRK explores how a historic church that’s knitted into a city’s urban fabric can be reestablished as a community asset. Becoming architectural experiments and art pieces which build off and expand what they have traditionally embodied, they can harness their history of congregation to form vibrant, viable and sustainable community spaces.

These kinds of approaches can not only maintain church architecture, but turn them into truly inclusive spaces for healing and wellness, education, and sustainability. Their redesigns don’t need to completely appropriate churches either, as seen with Sensory Fragments, another FLDWRK project: This is where the Coeur-Immaculé-de-Marie Church in the Sud-Ouest borough of Montreal donated only a part of its space for a residence with sensory designs catering to adults living with intellectual disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Parks, community centres, vibrant marketplaces, transitional housing—churches can not only maintain their heritage architecture but can be reconfigured as spaces that are shared as much as they are consumed. The previously longstanding community-oriented role that churches have played in our societies can be preserved alongside their physical structures.

illustrations of 3 church's windows on a green backdrop, lemay, architecture, design

Differing rural realities

Not only is there more than one strategy behind the reuse of churches, there’s more than one solution: As these discussions around what’s to be done with churches continue, rural contexts are often left undiscussed. The city of Montreal is commonly seen in headlines, but when the entire province of Quebec is taken into consideration, there were as many as 2,751 churches in 2003—700 and counting of which have been destroyed, closed or converted in the following decades as congregations and the monetary resources from those congregations dwindle and maintenance costs continue to rise.

“Churches are a kind of social heritage that we have. In small towns, churches often represented their single shared public building. It’s a remaining legacy of the people who have built it,” says Lemay’s Design Principal Eric Pelletier.

That said, the impact of removing churches in smaller towns isn’t the same as it is in larger cities like Montreal. While our first instinct should be to maintain their space, it can pose difficulties, so the question remains: What can be done with these intact yet relatively empty spaces which are central hubs for smaller populations?

Whatever path they take, people should be at the core of their design. “There are a lot opportunities to reuse them,” Pelletier adds. “One is to redevelop them as seniors’ residences, so that the town’s community can still be a part of it; they could also be vertical cemeteries so that the memory of a town’s residents can live on there; they could be schools, hospitals, or libraries as well.”

Whether they become spaces for culture, healthcare or something else entirely, they present opportunities to rediscover space when federal, provincial, and municipal governments find themselves needing to build something; existing buildings like churches provide fertile grounds for central access, and this applies to both rural and urban contexts. It’s especially important to keep churches in ways that remain publicly connected—this way, their most prominent and beautiful features can be maintained while open space itself can be realized in alternative ways.

“While we may not be able to save them all, preservation should be prioritized and explored as our first option. They’re a part of our history and society, so we must not only adapt them to today’s standards, but we need to adapt our connection to them,” Pelletier adds.

Refurbishing, not demolishing

As times change, our values change too. As old and outdated structures age—whether they’re architectural or social—we sometimes let them fall into disrepair to build on their rubble. We want to use our hindsight to shift our societies towards better decisions, taking proactive and beneficial actions for a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable world by building anew.

However, with churches, they don’t have to be demolished—they have to be repurposed. They are among so many heritage structures which can be preserved to not only find new meanings that benefit everyone, but in ways that can maintain some sense of their original purpose: Of sanctuary, of service to one another, of fellowship, teaching and education, and outreach to communities.

If we want to see these kinds of potential transformations, we need to be vocal about wanting to see them. Creating petitions for preservation, taking part in community engagement and participatory design, and reaching out to decision-makers and designers for support; all of these actions form essential parts to a whole where buildings like churches are given second lives that give back to people and the environment.

Like this article? Read more about how architecture and design can transform institutions of the past with Eric Pelletier’s article on the future of libraries.