Church Rooms New Life in Sacred Spaces

The repurposing of church buildings is not only an issue in eastern Germany or in Europe beyond Germany’s borders - as in the Netherlands, where chapels and churches that are no longer in use are now even being converted into discos and supermarkets.

Kita Stederdorf/ Peine, bwp NILSSON WITT Kita Stederdorf/ Peine, bwp NILSSON WITT | Photo: Andreas Meichsner In all of the Bundesländer, both the Lutheran and Catholic Churches are being compelled to deal with demographic change. Memberships are falling and thereby the churches’ financial options, as well. Smaller parishes are dissolving or are combining to form larger units. In the course of this process, church buildings are being made available for new utilisations.
As in Stederdorf, a suburb of Peine. In the midst of the idyllic village centre, far from the Autobahn, a KiTa in loud, bright colours peeps forth amid the old farmhouses and barns instead of the Catholic church, built in 1971 with prefabricated construction parts.

Kita Stederdorf/ Peine, bwp NILSSON WITT Kita Stederdorf/ Peine, bwp NILSSON WITT | Photo: Andreas Meichsner A metal slide above the ground floor with wooden siding shoots out from the building and lands with a slightly curving sweep on the sandy playground, like a giant elephant’s trunk. It is as if a stone image of “Elmar” were standing there, the popular, brightly-coloured elephant from David McKee’s book for children, this time in fiery red, yellow and green. Those who might think that this sort of thing just doesn’t fit in here and clashes with the adjacent buildings is mistaken, since the contours of the building’s proportions, brought together under a saddleback roof, fit in very well with their surroundings.

A firmament for children

The architects Susanne Witt and Patrik Nilsson vom Büro bwp NILSSON WITT of Celle planned the conversion. Instead of the prayer room with its strict seating order, a KiTa with a flowing ground plan has arisen here, with rooms that awaken curiosity and joie de vivre not only in children. Even the littlest children can look out in all directions thanks to colourful, cubic window boxes and low-set ribbon glazing. Broad window sills invite one to sit down and make oneself comfortable.

Kita Stederdorf/ Peine, bwp NILSSON WITT Kita Stederdorf/ Peine, bwp NILSSON WITT | Photo: Andreas Meichsner Where possible, the architects have dispensed with right angles and created numerous surprise and experience zones with various levels. A very special room, whose height and breadth appear to a child almost as limitless as the firmament is located under the roof in the newly installed upper storey. It is accessible via a wide staircase and by elevator for the handicapped. From here, not only the galleries can be reached, which enable one to look down from high up onto the whiteness of the room, but also downwards again, directly over the slide into the playground - an experience of pure space.

Symbols of community

Church buildings are important as conveyors of identity. The formative power of their spaces and their special atmosphere are bound up with memories of religious festivals and holidays, and occasions together with family and parish. The church is a symbol of community in constructed form. This is one reason why local authorities and parishes concern themselves with finding community, public and social concepts for follow-up uses of their houses of worship.

Self-assured repurposing

Etz Chaim Community Center and Synagoge Hannover/ Leinhausen Etz Chaim Community Center and Synagoge Hannover/ Leinhausen | Photo: ahrens grabenhorst architekten A respectful successor utilisation together with sensitive remodelling is what has taken place with the St. Gustav Adolf parish church in Leinhausen, a district of Hanover, which had originally been planned by Fritz Eggeling in 1968. Today it serves as the Etz Chaim community centre and synagogue for the 600 members of Hanover’s Liberal Jewish Community Association. The architects Gesche Grabenhorst and Roger Ahrens have realised the repurposing and were recognised with the State of Lower Saxony’s Prize for Architecture in 2010 for the high design quality of their work.

With great self-assurance, it is made clear from the outside already that the building’s purpose is now to be another one. Here, a clearly contoured white cubic structure, heightened by an addition, extends to the open square. A fine, golden ornamental net structure of metal referencing the Star of David is placed in front of the facade to serve as both sheathing for the main entrance and as visual protection - a filigree design element that the architects quote in the interior as well, in a manner both striking and unostentatious.

Traditional and modern elements

Spatial proportions, materials, lighting and colour schemes consolidate in the synagogue’s interior with its 200 seats into an exciting new interpretation of sacred space situated between modern and traditional elements of Jewish culture. The synagogue’s almost quadratic prayer room is directed axially towards the Torah cabinet. Three steps lead to the sacred shrine. Light moods created by glass panes covered with cloth and lit with LED lamps from behind, and the soft, matte sunlight entering through the skylight lend the space a solemn, meditative and yet liberated atmosphere.

A library of Jewish literature in the upper storey as well as a community centre with a café, communications rooms, a community hall with a stage, youth centre and offices and a kindergarten in the atrium area complete the entire complex. All interior spaces are plastered in white and have dark natural stone, ashlar or linoleum flooring.

Restaurant Heiliggeist in Mainz Restaurant Heiliggeist in Mainz | Photo: Heiliggeist The fact that former churches can be transformed into venues for gastronomic culture and tourist destinations is demonstrated by the repurposing of the Hospital Church of the Holy Spirit (Heiliggeist-Spitalkirche) in Mainz. No reservations were expressed as the medieval building had already been secularised in the 19th century and found new use first as a “correctional facility” for girls and then as a dance hall. Today, the Church of the Holy Spirit is one of Mainz’s most wonderful restaurants in terms of atmosphere.