Famagusta’s Religious Heritage: Past, Present and Future

by Michael Walsh*

Famagusta’s story is one that is worth telling and one from which there is yet much to be learned, replete as it is with the contrasts of triumph and tragedy; avarice and devotion; influence and neglect. It is a history from which we learn of the historical complexity and richness of Mediterranean economics, politics and aesthetics, and also become aware of the pressing need that exists for a re-evaluation of the responsibilities of the international community concerning endangered heritage in regions where warfare may have ceased but where a political solution is yet to be found.

Though the city was founded in and around 964, and moved directly into the French sphere of influence in the 1190s, its meteoric rise to prominence did not truly begin until after the fall of Acre in 1291. At this point Lusignan Famagusta, via a negotiated balance of trade between east and west, became one of the principal entrepôts in the E/eastern Mediterranean and also, not insignificantly, the new coronation place of the Kings of Jerusalem. The majestic Cathedral of St. Nicholas in the main square, modelled on Rheims and the great ecclesiastical structures of the Rhinelands, was surrounded by smaller gothic churches of the many orders present in the Medieval city which included Greeks, Armenians, Nestorians, Jacobites, Georgians, Nubians, Indians, Ethiopians, and others.

There was a castle, a palace, and a port from which radiated trade connections with the known world. But Famagusta was also infamous for corruption, political treachery, the slave trade, and murder, so much so that Saint Brigitta preached in the city’s square that divine retribution was inevitable. Dante too wrote of Famagusta in Canto XIX of ‘Paradiso’, mentioning it by name.

At the end of the 14th century, catalysed by the enforced government of the Genoese (1373 – 1464), the decline began from which Famagusta would never fully recover. Trade began to re-route to Alexandria and Beirut while the Black Death cruelly decimated the population. Nevertheless, when the Genoese departed in 1464, Famagusta became a source of renewed interest for Venice which, after a strategic marriage and the subsequent abdication of Caterina Cornaro, acquired the city and the island in 1489. The Senate invested heavily with all the artistry and engineering of the Renaissance to remodel the magnificent walls (which Vasari tells us were constructed by Micheli Sanmichele) and these were completed just as relations with Venice’s Ottoman rivals in the eastern Mediterranean deteriorated and led to war.

The fall of Famagusta came in 1571 when Ottoman commander Lala Mustafa Pasha brought one of the most infamous sieges in the history of warfare to these impregnable walls. A year later, with the starvation of the Venetian garrison and subsequent flaying alive of its commander, the transfer of the city and port to ‘Selim, Ottoman Sultan, Emperor of the Turks, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Shadow of God, Lord of the Earthly Paradise and of Jerusalem’ took place. One botched attempt was made by the Duke of Tuscany to recapture the great city in 1607, but it failed, and from that point to the British takeover in 1878 Famagusta receded into history and the ‘European imagination’ – becoming synonymous with martyrdom in the sense of losing one’s very soul. It was for that reason that Shakespeare’s ‘seaport in Cyprus’ in Othello, was most probably Famagusta. Though Christian travellers were forbidden entrance to the city over the next three hundred years, artists, writers and cartographers could still sketch, describe and depict it from beyond the walls, leaving behind a visual and written record of decline, depopulation and decay catalysed by several crippling earthquakes.

With the next imperial transfer, this time from Sultan to Empress (ie Ottoman Empire to British Empire) in 1878, Famagusta’s fortunes began an upward swing once again. Now, the abandoned city had life breathed back into it: the port was dredged and rebuilt, schools were erected, roads were made, swamps were drained and importantly, the churches, mosques and fortifications of Famagusta came in for considerable long-term conservation projects that spanned seven decades. With Empire, however, also came war. Famagusta, so long ghostly, again became a bustling sea port in the Great War, a centre of military intelligence, and a hospital base (and cemetery) for casualties from the Middle East theatre of operations. Several decades later it was bombed during the Second World War, and then, between 1945-47 housed tens of thousands of Jews in detention camps in the months leading up to the creation of the state of Israel. In the 1950s it witnessed the violent stirrings of Cypriot independence which arrived in 1960, experienced the subsequent intercommunal strife for over a decade, and then bore the brunt of the 1974 invasion of the island by Turkish forces – leaving its suburb of Varosha / Maraş a ghost town to this day.

Famagusta is located just beyond the ‘Green Line’ which divides Cyprus into two and within the self–declared, but internationally unrecognised, ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ which was declared in 1983. Its historic core is quiet again – home to a few businesses and a modest number of inhabitants, its sprawling suburbs host the Eastern Mediterranean University and offer the usual trappings of a university town, while the historic port plies its trade uniquely with Turkey. Though the war finished some decades ago being in an ‘unrecognised state’ means that Famagusta’s religious heritage (and archaeological sites etc) are now virtually ignored by the international community. How, the argument goes, can one work legally in a state which came into existence illegally?

Conservation of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

Conservation of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

Accordingly in 2008 and again in 2010 the Walled City of Famagusta was nominated and placed on the World Monuments Fund ‘Watch List’ of endangered global heritage sites, not because it was in a war zone, but because it was in an area characterised for debilitating and long-term political stalemate. In 2012, following patient and cautious trust building measures, the preparation of several preliminary reports, and a number of international conferences on the subject (in Paris, Budapest and Bern) emergency interventions began with a pilot project funded by the World Monuments Fund, Nanyang Technological University Singapore and the Famagusta Turkish Municipality. This resulted in the safeguarding of the important mural of The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste in the Church of St. Peter and Paul. The project was published, educational materials created to accompany it in local schools, and a documentary film made.

Orthscan of the Carmelite Church of  St. Mary

Orthscan of the Carmelite Church of St. Mary

The value of the project had not only been to protect the painting but to show that it could be done. Over the following two years the same team then turned its attention to the extensive interior decorations of three other 14th century ecclesiastical structures – the Armenian Church, St. Anne’s and the Carmelite Church of St. Mary Now a large international team drawn from 14 nations embarked on a trans-disciplinary project working in a range of scholastic pursuits, from Armenian archives to virtual reality; from chemical analysis to complexity theory; from art history to international law, and so on. Encouragingly discussions also began on returning the Armenian Church to the Armenian community of Cyprus for worship on special feast days, as is currently practiced at the nearby Agios Exorinos Church for the Greek Orthodox community. Foundational survey work was also conducted in the Orthodox church of Agia Zoni (especially to protect the mural of Saint Michael Fig 5) and the ‘Underground Church’ outside the Martinengo Bastion (with special emphasis falling on the painted heraldic devices).

Armenian Church Virtual Reality Tour

Armenian Church Virtual Reality Tour

Lastly, a non-invasive 3D modelling project was completed in St. George of the Greeks and this has since been published, while much more advanced Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality models are currently being built in Singapore.

The depth and range of academic work, I believe, was essential in appreciating and understanding what Famagusta was, and is. Combine this, then, with the knowledge that in a 2008 survey 92 percent of Greek Cypriots and 72 percent of Turkish Cypriots believed that protecting each other’s cultural heritage was an important way to improve understanding over the political, ethnic and religious dividing lines of Cyprus. In 2015 the United Nations (UNDP-PFF, at the behest of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage) took over responsibility for the protection of the ‘Martinengo Cluster’, incorporating the four churches within it which had been at the heart of the WMF / NTU / Municipality projects.

Famagusta’s unique story, its priceless treasure of human experience, its fragile tangible remains, its proximity to war torn Syria, and its current international isolation, offer us much food for thought. What can we learn about ourselves when studying Famagusta’s long departed cultural and ethnic heterogeneity, or when examining it as a remnant of imperialism and colonialism, or a site of contemporary memory and mourning? Additionally, it presents us with a compelling and urgent case study for the careful revision of international law as it currently exists relating to the protection of cultural heritage in post-conflict (but as yet politically unresolved) regions. The current status quo is unacceptable while the pilot projects led by the long-term WMF / NTU Singapore / Turkish Municipality of Famagusta collaboration demonstrate that it is unnecessary. Andrew McCarthy, Director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, Cyprus, offered us a clinical assessment saying

although archaeologists and historians are often uncomfortable and unprepared to deal with the intricacies of international law, negotiating the legal landscape is a simple fact of life in Cyprus. That said, just knowing the laws is not enough as Cyprus has become a special case requiring special treatment. The situation necessitates a custom-tailored solution to fit the situation in Cyprus.

The editors of a special 2015 edition of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies entitled “Occupied with Saving the Past: Advancing the Preservation Agenda in Northern Cyprus” concluded in a similar manner

The current political and legal situation on Cyprus hinders excavation, conservation, and preservation of sites and monuments that are not just important to the people of Cyprus—both Greek and Turkish—but to the world. While we must obviously live in the present, we must also strive to better understand and protect the remains of the past. Only by doing so now can we ensure the world’s heritage for the future.

The pilot schemes rolled out in Famagusta between 2012-2015 showed the value of international academic collaborations with NGO’s and local authorities and dismissed the notion that ‘scholars of the past are ill-equipped to deal with the political entanglements of the present.’ With this in mind I believe scholars and engaged citizens should begin long term planning for this magnificent city in toto in the event, or absence, of a solution to the Cyprus Problem. Additionally, I believe politicians (locally and globally) should concede that the heritage of Famagusta should not be asked to wait for a wider solution to the Cyprus Problem with all its inherent displacement and property issues. Instead efforts should be made to create strategies to protect, appreciate and fund heritage interventions and to contemplate new management and education potentials. With the good-will of NGO’s, universities, local authorities and special interest organisations, much can be done to ensure the Future of Religious Heritage in Famagusta so that it does not get added to an already long list of irreparable losses on the island. But it will require a new type of thinking, one which I feel confident may exist within the current membership of the FRH forum.

*Michael Walsh is associate professor at Nanyang University, Singapore. He was previoulsy employed at Eastern Mediterranean University (Famagusta, Cyprus) where he successfully nominated Famagusta for inclusion in the World Monuments Fund Watch List (twice) and acted as team coordinator for the United Nations project ‘Cultural Heritage Data Collection in the northern part of Cyprus’. Michael was Associate Chair (Research) at ADM from 2012 – 216 and is currently fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Historical Society. Professor Walsh is a member of FRH.

Maintain your Heritage: Fighting a Culture of Neglect

by George Allan*

All over Europe, the building conservation movement is confronting the need to find new ways to conserve churches no longer needed for worship. This is a huge challenge which deserves to succeed.

But alongside this is a more basic problem that threatens the success of this effort, at least in some countries, including the UK. Churches must be prevented from going out of use because of neglect. Unless a major effort is mounted, many churches have no future – either as churches in use, or as anything else, because the resources to rescue them from neglect simply do not exist on the scale required.

I estimate that the Church of England’s 12,000 historic churches now have a cumulative repair backlog of £1.5bn, (€1.77bn) which is growing at the rate of at least £70M (€82M) a year.

Maintain our Heritage was founded in 1999 to campaign for better maintenance, across the whole spectrum of building types, by a group of conservationists, academics and journalists. The work of Monumentenwacht in the Netherlands was a major inspiration for us.

We believe that the UK’s major conservation institutions – notably Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund – focus virtually all their energies, funds and professional resources on the expensive rescue of ‘buildings at risk,’ often in very poor condition after periods of avoidable neglect.

They do this by perpetuating their long-standing refusal to use their powers to give grants for maintenance, focussing all the available funds instead on repairs – so that the more dilapidated and visibly “at risk” a church is, the more likely it is to receive such grants.

A Culture of Neglect

This, and other factors, has created a culture of neglect. Small rural parishes struggling to give routine care to their church will get no support from these institutions and we have heard of parishes deciding to close down after receiving an estimate for £40,000 (€47,200) worth of repairs for which they are unwilling to make the fundraising effort. In remote rural areas, the church is often the last communal building left after decades of depopulation and its closure can be a catastrophe for the entire population of the area, both for church-goers and others.

Against this background, we set out to campaign for the more efficient application of resources to maintenance. Our founding principle is that any historic building not receiving routine, preventive maintenance is by definition ‘at risk’. By that standard, most historic buildings in the UK are at risk – often long before any more overt threat to their future emerges.

Between 2002 and 2003, we carried out a pilot scheme of a Monumentenwacht-type service in Bath, for all types of historic building. [see photo] This was well received, and although we knew it could not be replicated directly in the UK, for financial and other reasons, we established that there were no technical reasons why such a service could not be provided.

In 2006, we published the results of a major research project, Putting it Off, which analysed the reasons for the culture of neglect. It found that this is not confined to churches or historic buildings; Britain neglects all its buildings: schools, museums & galleries, housing. Other sectors are no better, and almost every year people walking along a UK street are killed by masonry falling from neglected buildings.

A recent study by the Edinburgh World Heritage Site and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) even found that 72% of buildings in the centre of the city needed repairs.

GutterClear in Gloucester

One practical outcome of our Bath pilot was “GutterClear”, a church maintenance promotion scheme in the nearby Diocese of Gloucester, home to 400 of the most important churches in Britain.

The problem is that although Church of England parishes are required to maintain their churches, they often fail to do so, either trying mistakenly to save money, or for lack of volunteer help to reach the often inaccessible heights of their church.

Similar schemes had been set up in other Dioceses but what is unique about GutterClear is that it emphasises the role of competitive contractors and runs with minimal cost.

It works by making it easy for any place of worship (of any denomination or faith) to use the services of a number of accredited local maintenance contractors, working to a standard specification and contract terms, to clear and test every gutter and downpipe regularly, thus dealing with the single most potent source of repair bills. The contractors take “before and after” digital photos, and report back on any problems they see. Some use traditional ladders, and some use mobile access platforms. [see photos]

The scheme is not subsidised, as the parishes using the system deal directly with the contractor and pay the full cost of the service, for which they receive a competitive individual quotation, while remaining free to use any of the contractors – or make their own arrangements as they wish. A web site supports the scheme and enables parishes to seek quotations from the contractors at the click of a mouse. The costs of administering the scheme are low, and are met from funds raised at dinner with HRH Prince Charles, at his home in Clarence House, London, in 2007.

Changes Ahead

Happily, there are now signs of change.

First, the UK Government has appointed an expert review of the “sustainability” of the current repair funding for Church of England churches. Details are now emerging and it is likely that the review will insist on far better standards of maintenance. Schemes such as GutterClear and its equivalents may be created in every Diocese. There are also moves to enable Dioceses to take over the management of parish churches. A vigorous six-year programme of training of parish volunteers by SPAB is, however, sadly coming to a close.

Secondly, the National Churches Trust, a major grant-giving charity, has started a pilot programme to promote routine maintenance in Yorkshire, and has also created a nation-wide grant scheme for small maintenance works for churches . Both of these schemes are funded by the Pilgrim Trust , a private charity, which has rightly decided that its funds available for churches are more effectively spent on maintenance than repairs.

Thirdly, another pilot maintenance scheme – with similarities to Monumentenwacht – has been set up for all historic buildings in Stirling in Scotland, by the Stirling City Heritage Trust , and funded by Historic Environment Scotland.


Looking outwards to the rest of Europe, we draw encouragement from the many successful maintenance schemes in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium and keep in touch with these, hoping we might develop into a more formal network. We are also keen to contact anyone in other counties without such initiatives, who might be interested in making a start.

Our experience suggests that the path towards a maintenance-led culture can be long and hard – but at least, we have on our side the overwhelming financial and conservation logic of maintenance, which becomes all the more apparent as resources tighten and the inherent wastefulness and unsustainability of the neglect-and-repair cycle becomes painfully apparent.

*George Allan has been a campaigner for historic buildings since his days as a law student. During and after his career as a commercial solicitor in London, he set up local environmental campaigns in London and Kent and helps SAVE Britain’s Heritage on national issues. He was also elected to Islington Council in London and took a full part in its planning and conservation decisions for more than 16 years.

George has always felt the need to campaign for maintenance and co-founded Maintain our Heritage in 1999. He combines his love of European travel with a passion for running and organ music.

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Discovering the Koekelberg Basilica, with a Belgian architect as a guide

by Nadia Everard*

Koekelberg’s Plateau overhangs Brussels and has such a great situation that Leopold Ist King of the Belgians (1790-1865) wished to build there his royal residence. But his successor Leopold II (1835-1909) had something else in mind and saw rather there a great pathway up to a new Belgian Pantheon. However the governing Catholics rejected the project which was in their view far too secular.

On the occasion of a visit to the French President Emile Loubet in Paris in 1902, Leopold II King of the Belgians visited the almost finished Sacré-Coeur of Paris. On his way back to Belgium, he had the idea of building an even bigger basilica dedicated to the Sacré-Coeur of Jesus in the hearth of Brussels and taking the opportunity of the 75th anniversary of the Belgian Independence, the construction began. It has to be seen within the context at the time, when a fierce cultural battle was raging between the two capital cities, leading the painter Antoine Wiertz to his famous maxim “Bruxelles Capitale, Paris province” (Brussels as the Capital, Paris as the Province, 1840). Yet, Koekelberg basilica is mainly born from the wish to give Belgium its national semi-secular, semi-religious pantheon.

Moreover, the Koekelberg Basilica was aimed at rivalling Brussels Law Court’s size and being the town’s third mount – the religious one, after the mount of Justice and the Mount of Arts – at the west end. At the time, it was the second biggest edifice in the world (100m high, 141m long, 107 large) and it is today’ fifth church in size.

As the basilica’s planners were rooted in a Christian tradition, they wanted to build a true place of pilgrimage and at the beginning, the Louvainist architect Pierre Langerock imagined a neo-gothic Basilica inspired from the architectural and theoretical style of Viollet-Le-Duc. The 12th October 1905 the construction began with its huge foundations. But after the King’s death, the construction slows down and in 1914, the First World War puts it a definitive stop. In the conflict aftermath, the project is found irrelevant and considered as far too expensive and out-of-date. Therefore in 1920, a call for a new project is launched and Albert Van Huffel for Gent is designated as the new architect.

At the far end of majestic walkway planted with trees, there it stands, Koekelberg Basilica, glaring at whoever’s approaching.

The huge Sacred-Hearth national basilica is the culmination of an ending era which used Twentieth Century styles and techniques without renouncing to its traditional bias. It shows religion hand-in-hand with classicism, together in one basilica whose dome faces as if it was confronting Brussels no less imposing Courthouse, symbol of secularism. Despite their differences, those two monuments are both the unloved children of the capital City.

Koekelberg basilica embodies values from another age such as patriotism, mass pilgrimage and the Sacred-Hearth adoration, although its architecture is curiously far from yesterday’s standards with its refined spaces, byzantine inspirations and interior’s rawness. It appears cheerless, ascetic to the visitor’s eye and that’s precisely what shall be called religious Art Déco (whose name was only born in 1925 during the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” in Paris). Albert Van Huffel is determined to give his basilica a structural frame in concrete which was, at that time, the cheapest solution. Using concrete for structure allowed to free the great nave and therefore facilitated the circulation and participation of the worshippers during celebrations. As a modern architect, Van Huffel aims at submitting the basilica’s architecture to an intern organization, the only constraint being the Latina cross form and the domes in a Byzantine style. The singularity of Koekelberg basilica comes from its double function. First the Basilica had to host at least 5 000 worshippers (finally raising to 20 000) for the large ceremonies and processions as well as filling the role of a parish church. The architect therefore designed a Basilica which is in complete rupture with the classic centered plan architecture and which is composed with several flexible spaces. The hearth of the Basilica consists in a high altar with a huge Baldachin under a wide dome.

When Albert Van Huffel died in 1935, shortly before the inauguration of the Great Apse, the continuation of his work was assigned to Paul Rome, engineer and architect. He changed only one part of the edifice, certainly not the least significant, the Dome. The latter was finished the 10 November 1970, one day before its inauguration, at the occasion of the nomination of the cardinal Joseph Suenens.

The basilica’s basic form, a Latin cross, reminds us that its architecture is inspired by classicism. The central nave bordered by side aisles leads to the hearth with which are connected the two parts of the transept, ending each with five radiating chapels. Where the two axes of the cross intersect, rises on four pillars a 90 meters high dome.

This edifice releases an obvious unity born from desire to combine pure form with interior richness and which reflects the “ornamentation”. Those compact masses coexisting in harmony with sober lines create both clarity and unity. Those elements are typical from the Art Deco architecture. In fact, the Basilica’s soul resides in its materials. Without the use of terracotta and facing bricks, the warm atmosphere that characterizes its interior wouldn’t exist. Terracotta is a typically Belgian product of ceramic made with clay. Its use is mainly due to the fact that produced on an industrial scale, this moulded brick was far cheaper than any other material. Terracotta is used inside to favour light games and in this case, it also plays the role of formwork for the concrete which is poured inside. However, this didn’t go according to Van Huffel plans who neglected that the two materials didn’t for instance react the same way to temperature changes and therefore created cracks. Moreover, the delicate and diverse shades of orange-yellow, light pink and gold aren’t much visible.

Each year, Brussels sees 3 millions of tourists crossing its streets, of which only 80 000 stop at the Koekelberg Basilica, meaning that the latter merely attracts 2.6% of the whole touristic flux. The reasons of such a lack of interest are diverse. First, there’s obviously its ex-centered location, nearing the sadly famous Molenbeek neighborhood that can’t be reached on foot from the city Centre. Moreover the Basilica belongs to the Koekelberg district, which is currently subject to “urban revitalization” (as shown on the following map) aimed at deprived neighborhoods, meaning that the Basilica’s environment is far from being a touristic heaven.

Therefore a question arises: why such a fabulous manifest of Art Deco attracts only 2,6% of Brussels tourists today? The fault partly lies with the architects and glassmakers. In his schemes, Albert van Huffel decided to separate the Basilica in two parts: one for the ceremonies and the other dedicated to processions. The boundary takes the form of a huge baldachin which blocks the sunlight inflow coming from the side aisles the dome. Taking up the torch, Paul Rome changed A. Van Huffel plans and replaced the intended glass panels of the dome by copper panels because he feared that they would fall under their own weight. The lighting would therefore not be zenithal but lateral, even though the windows don’t offer a sufficient light inflow to illuminate the hearth. Besides, a dome is often considered as the symbolic eye of God and should therefore draw one’s attention upwards but in this case, it is made of concrete and blue terracotta which is far from the idea of divine transcendence. Nevertheless, it brings a strange kind of brutality and darkness which enlarge the already wide edifice by plunging its edges into the obscurity. No matter how small, these changes have deep consequences on the whole project which, being already dark, becomes even more obscure.

To my view, light in a church is as essential as a beating hearth in our chest; it’s an almost physical need in order for faith – others may call it emotion – to win over worshippers’ minds. In Koekelberg basilica, though, light and its glimpses are obscured for the foregoing reasons and that creates a singular atmosphere. So yes, I would say it’s a pity that Paul Rome changed A. Van Huffel schemes because if he didn’t, Koekelberg basilica would have been stellar and surely far more visited.

As described, Koekelberg basilica suffers from an obvious lack of visibility which is due to a poor communication, location and, above all, mistakes in the very basis of its conception. Some simple moves could therefore revive its lustre such as opening a skylight in the dome as it was initially planned, improving the overall artificial lighting or removing the baldachin from the hearth. Besides, the space could be used for events such as Christmas, conferences and exhibitions, instead of being empty all day long. Some of them could help promoting the basilica’s art heritage and therefore attract a wider range of tourists. In this regard, infrastructures should be put in place, walks around the three Brussels mounts for instance, alongside a media promotion.


-    S.BUAM, historique activité membres, édition la Cité, p.33-34

-    Koekelberg basiliek /monument art Deco, édition Art Deco

-    La technique des travaux, L. Novgorodsky, p. 241-257 mai 1938

-    Archive d’Architecture Moderne (AAM), Dossier 115, Documents graphiques dessiné par Paul Rome, 1959 (plans, coupes,…)

-    www.basilicakoekelberg.be

-    www.brugis.irisnet.be

-    http://www.sunearthtools.com

-    Guided visit of the Basilica of Koekelberg, biennale Art Nouveau, 17 octobre 2015.

*FRH Member Nadia Naty Everard was born in 1998. She is an old Belgian architecture student. She ha completed my bachelor’s degree at ‘La Cambre Horta’, within the ‘Université Libre de Bruxelles’. She currently lives in London.  Her deep interest in architecture led her to visit, photograph and draw numerous places and spaces in the world mostly in France, Italy and Russia.

Klein Wetsinge: when design meets tourism

*by Marcus van der Meulen

Rural Groningen has become a place of worries. Cracking up communities and historic buildings, the extraction of natural gas in the region has left its mark threatening the thirteenth century Church in Loppersum, a Top 100 Dutch Heritage site. Settlements have seen dropping numbers of villagers in an almost irreversible escape from the country.

Decreasing congregations imply growing difficulties for many villages to keep up their local church. In Klein Wetsinge, a settlement of just two streets and a few houses on the road connecting the villages of Sauwerd and Groot Wetsinge, Stichting Oude Groninger Kerken took over the house of worship over a decade ago. Together with the local community, the new owner started a rejuvenating scheme connecting this redundant church to its new context as a communal meeting place for both villagers and visitors.

Not just the congregation proved to be in poor shape, the condition of the structure and especially the woodwork was in need of a thorough restoration. A conservation as found however, a sine qua non to many preservationists, was not an option. In a region that can boast some of the finest in religious heritage in the country, with the churches of Middelstum and Stedum only a bike ride away, the fear of creating another defunct monument was vivid reality. Trying to revive community life could not succeed without some interventions updating this nineteenth century place of worship to the needs of today.

As the commemoration stone above the entrance recalls, this church was built in 1840 and unified the congregations of Sauwerd and Groot Wetsinge, two villages literally down the road. The building replaced two medieval structures in a period when heritage preservation was not yet an issue. Its plain and functional appearance is typical for a Dutch Waterstaatskerk. These are places of worship built by the ministry of Water Management and Public Works, the Rijkswaterstaat, between 1824 and 1875, simple aisle-less structures that could be either protestant or catholic parish churches. Decoration was optional, neo-classical and Neo-Dutch renaissance style proved to be populair. In Klein Wetsinge a minimal of ornamentation was used. The exterior is in a red brick typical of the Groningen region, the interior has a white wooden floor and a petrol-blue wooden barrel vault. Rescued from one of the precursors the pulpit stands at the centre in this calvinist house of worship. The organ is little over a century and during a restoration in the seventies the original benches were removed. A provincial church treasured by the local community but offering little to the ever more demanding tourist.

Adapting this redundant house of God into a place of gathering J.O.N.G. architects was asked to provide designs. At Bolsward the architectural practice had redesigned the Broerekerk some ten years ago , giving the gothic remains of the burned out chapel glass roofs.

kl-wetsinge 02At Klein Wetsinge the interior was given an update , a kitchen and multi-purpose room both with an oval plan and covered in a light coloured wood. Retaining the identity of a calvinist church the pulpit stands out as the main piece of interest, the oval additions opening up in the aisleless nave from entrance only amplify this. Black chairs stand out against white tables displaying booklets and magazines on local churches, changing exhibitions of local artists decorate the walls, providing the place a parochial atmosphere. It was the intention to create a living room for the local community, a place where they could meet and enjoy coffee and home baked cakes. The church can also be rented for gatherings like weddings and receptions, exhibitions and meetings.

To attract visitors, Klein Wetsinge church is trying to exploiting the possibilities of rural tourism as the ideal starting and finishing point of  cycle routes through the Reitdiep area. E-bikes are advised, the north Groningen countryside might be flat the winds can be harsh. Offering cheese and bikes, albeit local cheese and e-bikes, the feeling remains this project is not grown to its full potential yet, not reaching the same level as the interventions designed by the architects. They have taken this redesign project a bit further than the obvious .

Slightly hidden stairs near the entrance take visitors up to the organ level. Coming at this level the designers saw the potential of opening the clock house to visitors and creating a glass cabin that would allow views of the surrounding country side.

kl-wetsinge 05Originally the architects this cabin was planned in the turret but lack of space moved it to the back of the building, on the other end of the roof. This opened up the idea of a pass way through the wooden structures holding up the roof creating a unique experience, with an uninterrupted view of the Reitdiep region as an apotheosis. By choosing polyester as a material for the cabin, the designers ad a confident contrast to the old structure, an addition that is not ashamed to be just that, a contemporary intervention. This Dutch directness of material and design may be discomforting to some.

Conservation bodies are not always sympathetic to redesign projects, rather holding on to Ruskinian principles of keeping as found. For many historic buildings this mentality can only create places of slow decay and defunct monuments. Redesigning religious heritage in Western Europe will increasingly become an issue the decades ahead, challenging people to respectfully treat heritage and community.

kl-wetsinge 07At Klein Wetsinge, Stichting Oude Groninger Kerken and the local community have been brave enough to not only question this status quo but also make some essential design decisions. Much harder than simply preserving the building as it is, admiring it for its heritage, this scheme is an attempt to rejuvenate both this house of worship and the village, transforming it from an ordinary Waterstaatskerkje into a meeting place for locals and visitors. But preservationist rest assured, all interventions made are easily reversible and neither the atmosphere nor the structure of the building were altered. In line with the original function of the building as a communal house of gathering, Klein Wetsinge offers an excellent example of how reuse of religious architecture can be meaningful and significant.

Marcus Van der Mulen

Marcus van der Meulen

*Marcus van der Meulen director and co-founder of Square, meeting place for reuse and redesign of religious architecture. He has studied architecture and interior architecture at Leuven University (St Lucas Institute for Architecture) and monument preservation at the Institute for Conservation and Restoration. Marcus has been active in redesign and reuse projects for many years in Belgium and abroad. As an interior historian he is researching the medieval church interior with special focus on Flanders and England, a book on brass lecterns from the period 1470-1520 is due next year.