Living in Churches and Offices—City Revitalisation through creative Repurposing

February 18, 2019

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20). But what if not even two people attend church services? Churches can be revitalised as living spaces as can offices and official buildings.

© shutterstock / dvoevnore
Empty churches can be transformed into something new – libraries, museums or apartments.

Under the motto “Dio non abita qui?” (Doesn’t God live here anymore?), delegates from 36 countries recently looked into the problem of disused and soon-to-be disused churches at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Nobody knows exactly how many houses of worship have already been abandoned—in Germany, around 500 Catholic churches have been deconsecrated in the past 20 years according to the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

So what should we do with a house of God without God? The Catholic Church is acting rather cautiously and wants “initiatives that do not desecrate the spirit”—i.e. museums, libraries and premises for charitable causes. Preservation experts have proven that more can be done, however. The disused “Herz Jesu” church (Sacred Heart) in Mönchengladbach has been turned into an ensemble of 23 housing units over four storeys. The project is the work of monument developers Schleiff Denkmalentwicklung. “Thanks to the “house-in-house concept”, we were able to retain the exterior and interior appearance to a great extent—the wooden frame structure allowed us to leave the original building untouched,” commented a delighted Georg Wilms, manager of Schleiff, at the presentation of the prize-winning project in front of members of the “Immpresseclub” (interest group for property industry journalists).

Office air around the clock

Of course, it is only in rare cases that revitalisation works in such a spiritual manner as in Mönchengladbach – considerably more mundane properties can be found in Frankfurt’s Niederrad district. At the end of 2014, no less than 18.6 percent of the office space in Niederrad was vacant (NAI Apollo office market report) making the once popular office location seem desolate and abandoned. The booming demand for apartments in the banking metropolis turned the tide, however. Disused office towers are being deliberately demolished or redesigned as living spaces. The most prominent example is the “Lyoner Quartier” complex that had 13 percent vacancies in 2016 before falling below the Frankfurt average to 9 percent in 2017.

Living somewhere where people used to go to work does not look particularly unusual at first, but it does have special features. Once home to an office monoculture where the streets were deserted after working hours, the area will develop into a lively district that combines workplaces, homes and social life. The “Sandhöfer Residenz” complex is attracting well-to-do career entrants with services ranging from bread roll delivery to chauffeurs. Offering an unobstructed view of the Frankfurt skyline, it features surprisingly unconventional layouts and has incorporated office furnishings into the apartments. In 2015, “The Fizz”, premium-class student halls of residence, opened in a building on Mainzer Landstrasse that previously housed the public order office. The fully furnished units ranging from 18 to 24 square meters come with concierge service and common rooms plus free loan of PlayStations and vacuum cleaners. This all-in luxury package starting at € 667 per month meets the needs of many students better than the old-style flat shares with communal toilets.

This success may not, however, come to all deserted business districts on the outskirts of our cities, but who knows—perhaps living in disused furniture stores will be latest craze by 2025.

Stephanie von Keudell

Independent journalist