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.

Belarus’ heritage on the edge of change

by Anastasiya Scherbina*

Belarus is one of the least known and recognizable country in the East Europe. Owing to its political and economic current situation, Belarus remains as a white spot on the map for the rest of the world. Nevertheless, it has own rich history with ups and downs, prosperity and occupation, world-famous figures and their achievements, features and mentality of people. Continue reading

Growing Together: England’s Cathedrals and Civic Regeneration

by Becky Clark*

The Church of England has forty-two cathedrals: the oldest foundation is the Mother Church – Canterbury Cathedral – founded by Augustine of Canterbury in AD597, whilst the youngest is Guildford, consecrated in 1961. In terms of architectural history they are collectively some of the very best buildings in the country, evidencing over 1400 years of development, ingenuity and work. Although each cathedral is unique not only in historical terms but also in terms of its place within its city and region, there has recently been an increased effort to identify those traits and characteristics which allow them to be appreciated as a group. Key to this has been an understanding of how their extraordinary shared history is playing a fundamental part in economic and social regeneration and sustainability across the country.

FRH Figure 1 - Worcester Cathedral

Worcester Cathedral is still at the heart of its city. © The Archbishops’ Council/Paul Barker

Some of England’s cathedrals have always been famous, busy and monetised. For example, the cults of Thomas Becket at Canterbury or St Cuthbert at Durham have attracted pilgrims, gawpers, petitioners and tourists for hundreds of years. Whole industries of guest houses, eating places, and sellers of dubious religious relics grew up around significant sites. Some of them are still very much in evidence. So in some ways an exploration of the economic and social contribution of cathedrals is not going to bring up anything new. However what is new is an appreciation of the place cathedrals have in what are today seen as secular concerns, such as regeneration, community building and local economic growth.

In 2014 the Association of English Cathedrals commissioned a report looking at the contribution made by cathedrals nationally. This included several case studies which focused on different ‘types’ of cathedrals. Due to the unique way in which each cathedral has developed and is run, a strict system of catergorisation is neither possible nor helpful, but for the purposes of identifying shared characteristics, opportunities and issues, the forty-two were grouped as follows:

•    Large international (e.g. Canterbury, Durham)

•    Medium, historic (e.g. Chester, Exeter)

•    Medium, modern (Guildford and Truro)

•    Parish church (e.g. Blackburn, Derby)

•    Urban (e.g. Birmingham, Liverpool)

Their impact was then assessed against a range of criteria which covered both the direct and indirect economic effects. Direct effects were those concerning employment and expenditure linked to the cathedral itself, whilst indirect included visitor activity and expenditure in the wider area. To this data was added information on the level of social impact, classed under four categories: worship, education, volunteering, and community outreach. Additionally an in-depth case study was completed on at least one cathedral out of each of the groupings.

FRH Figure 2 - AEC infographic

Demonstrating growth – the headline findings of a recent survey. © The Association of English Cathedrals

The results were compared to a similar report completed in 2004, mapping ten years of change. And they were astounding. Figure 2 shows the results in an infographic. The top line findings were:

•    In 2013, 8.3 million people visited cathedrals as tourists and visitors. This is in addition to the millions who attend services, and the hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren who visited as part of educational programmes. Adding in these takes the total number to well over 11 million visitors annually, equal to all visitors to English Heritage’s 420+ sites.

•    Cathedrals contribute £220 million annually to the national economy, a rise of 47% from ten years ago.

•    £125 million of this comes directly from visitor-related spend, up 37% from 2004, showing that not only are cathedrals growing, they are growing by encouraging visitors and tourism.

•    Across England 7,380 people are employed thanks to cathedrals

•    14,760 people volunteer at cathedrals, in roles ranging from flower arranging and embroidery through to tour guiding and office support.

Add to this the Church of England’s 2013 Church Growth Research Project (www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/), which showed a 37% increase in cathedrals’ worshipping congregations over the past 10 years, and you have one of the largest, most successful, and most visible parts of the Church of England, spread all across the country, a truly nationwide resource.

Undoubtedly the national picture was telling us that cathedrals were a powerful force for economic and social growth. But what also became apparent, through both the report and through the work being done by individual cathedrals, was that cathedrals saw themselves as not just part of their localities, but leaders of regeneration within it. Not all English cathedrals are large and grand. Some – mostly those in the ‘parish church’ and ‘urban’ categories used by the researchers – used to be parish churches, aggrandised in the 19th and early 20th centuries to fit the spiritual demands of growing populations. Many of these are in cities which have seen a subsequent decline in manufacturing and industry, and the concentration of economic growth in the south-east of England, leaving some communities struggling. For these places tourism is not (or at least not yet) a major force. What is needed is local civic regeneration. Urban and parish church cathedrals are proving that they want to be at the heart of this.

FRH Figure 3 - Blackburn Cathedral

Blackburn Cathedral is growing to meet the needs of its community. © Angelo Hornack, reproduced by permission of Blackburn Cathedral

There are several projects which could serve as exemplars, but one which is happening right now is focusing on Blackburn Cathedral (Figure 3). Blackburn, in Lancashire, north-west England, is not a major tourist destination, but the cathedral does attract significant numbers of visitors, estimated at 18,700 in 2013.

Blackburn is currently engaged in a major redevelopment project as part of the Cathedral Quarter scheme to upgrade a large site in the town centre. The project is due for completion in autumn 2015 and includes a new hotel, office blocks, public realm improvements and transport interchange, involving numerous public agencies and private sector partners. Cathedral staff have played a key role since 2000, driving, planning and delivering this project, with a subsidiary company, Blackburn Cathedral Development Company, managing the Cathedral Court element of the project with the support of professional design and project management contractors.

The Cathedral Court will include a library, refectory, conference room, hospitality suite, offices, underground car park and accommodation. It will also include a new cloister and garth – the first cloister built at an English cathedral since the reformation. A total of £6.8 million will be invested in the cathedral, with the majority of funding coming from the Homes and Communities Agency and the Borough Council (a large part of whose contribution is from the European Regional Development Fund). The remainder has been raised by the cathedral through the sale of leases on previously undeveloped land, contributions from the Cathedral Trust, and extensive fundraising efforts, which are still on-going.

The project represents a major improvement to the urban environment and is expected to increase the number of people visiting the cathedral by improving both visibility and accessibility. It will directly increase the numbers of people living in Blackburn town centre as a result of the new accommodation being built. The project will also increase the cathedral’s capacity to host musical, education and community activities, further developing community outreach work.

In line with its policy of using local suppliers wherever possible, the cathedral decided at an early stage to use a local building firm to carry out the work, a move which benefited the local economy by an estimated £7.8 million.

When complete, it is hoped that the Cathedral Court project will bring a range of financial benefits. For example, the cathedral will save an estimated £33,000 per year on accommodation (as its own clergy and music scholars will live in some of the new housing it is building), earn an additional £10,500 from the rental of office space, and between £15,000 to £20,000 by licensing or franchising refectory services.  Overall, it is estimated that cathedral income will increase from the current £15,000 to around £25,000 per year as a result. These are all sustainable, long-term gains.

It is also anticipated that the project will boost revenue by increasing the cathedral’s attractiveness as a venue for events. The cathedral already hosts a range of civic ceremonies, musical performances, art exhibitions and events, and recently commissioned an events management consultancy to conduct a feasibility study on using the cathedral for corporate events and meetings, to better understand the revenue this could generate and the type of events that would be appropriate. The study concluded that there was already significant demand amongst businesses thanks to the cathedral’s scale and architecture.

The scale of the Blackburn model cannot be re-created everywhere, but elements of it are applicable to many religious buildings. The key finding has been that where regeneration efforts are needed, cathedrals (often situated in the historic centre of their town or city) are central to success.

In Peterborough the resurrection of the central town square has been done in conjunction with works to provide open, level access to the beautiful medieval cathedral.

FRH Figure 4 - celidh beneath the rood, Wakefield Cathedral - Harriet Ev... - Copia

Wakefield’s new floor and more flexible space has seen local people flooding in to enjoy it in many different ways. © Wakefield Cathedral/Harriet Evans

In Wakefield (Figure 4) the controversial removal of the Victorian pews and stone floor, and replacement with a modern floor, underfloor heating and moveable chairs, has doubled the visitor numbers, with almost all visitors coming from the immediate area to enjoy the rejuvenation of ‘their’ cathedral. The cathedral has been able to open its doors to a new range of events and groups, making it a real focus for communities coming together.

FRH Figure 4 - Leicester

Leicester Cathedral was expanding its civic role even before the discovery of King Richard III’s bones. © The Dean and Chapter of Leicester Cathedral

In Leicester (Figure 5), efforts to create a cathedral quarter with a green space available to all in the city were well underway even before the discovery of the remains of King Richard III and the re-burial in the cathedral. These were linked directly into the Council’s strategy to build up civic amenities in the city. More often than not the outside space cathedrals have is key to the part they play in civic regeneration. In improving this and linking it to secular areas of their cities, cathedrals also improve ease of access to the church itself. These models could be applied, at differing scales, to cathedrals, major churches and many other places of worship anywhere in Europe.

By creatively engaging with and leading civic regeneration, England’s cathedrals are ensuring that they remain relevant and central to their communities. As agents of regeneration and economic growth, cathedrals give but also gain, in all the ways that matter to them – community building, income generation, and most importantly, their Christian mission. This path is not easy – it costs money and takes up staff and clergy time, it often leads to changes and disruption which have to be justified to loyal congregations. And there is no guarantee it will work, meaning it requires an appetite for risk which is often lacking in religious communities. However there is growing evidence and experience which demonstrates that this approach works, increasing the impact of cathedrals in all aspects of local and national life. In continuing to serve the people they are there to serve, cathedrals need to look not just to the past, but to the future.

Becky Clark

Becky Clark

* Becky Clark is the Church of England’s Senior Cathedrals Officer, and runs the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England. In this role she has responsibility and oversight for all buildings-related matters for England’s 42 Anglican cathedrals. The role involves travel all over England (and occasionally further afield) and covers everything from archaeology and architecture to new builds and solar panels. Previously Becky worked for English Heritage (now Historic England) on the Heritage Protection Reform and then running the Chief Executive’s office. She has also worked for the National Trust and Thinktank, Birmingham’s science museum. Becky studied Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Oxford and has a passion for the classical world. 

For more information on the care and management of the Church of England’s 42 cathedrals and 16,000 parish churches, visit www.churchcare.co.uk

The research report can be read in full and for free on the Association of English Cathedrals website, under ‘Resources’.

You can follow progress at Blackburn Cathedral and find out how to support their fundraising appeal via Twitter: @bbcathedral

To find out more about the 42 cathedrals, check out the new book, Director’s Choice: Cathedrals of the Church of England by Janet Gough, available from online bookshops.

The struggle for sustaining religious heritage in a time of change

by Albert Gerhards, Rob Plum & Kim de Wildt *

Historically churches used to be the centre of life. Churches did not just meet religious needs, but societal needs as well. The whole life cycle revolved around the church building. The complete life cycle was elevated and celebrated in the church: children were baptised and confirmed there, adults got married and deceased got buried. And in the meantime, from the cradle to the grave, life was lived according to a daily, weekly and yearly religious rhythm. The classical example of the church service on Sunday which was followed by a visit in the nearby pub, structured the weekly life of the community and brought the worldly and spiritual life organically together.

Kim de Wildt

Kim de Wildt

Nowadays this situation has changed drastically because of societal phenomena like secularisation and individualisation. The church building and religion altogether are for most contemporary people not the centre of life anymore, for many others religions does not play a role altogether. Especially the weekly celebratory practices have become less evident. Despite the popularity of celebrating the life cycle, especially rites of passage at birth and weddings, here as well the church has lost its monopoly and is only one of many providers in the market of life cycle celebrations. Here the church has lost its monopoly; she competes with an increasing number of ritual providers in this market. The Christian religion has become a peripheral phenomenon. This trend started a long time ago und seems irreversible. It confronts us with the question what to do with our religious heritage.

“Demolition” and “reuse” are the main concepts in the current debate on the church building. There are many initiatives to save the church building from demolition or decay. In the discussion about saving religious heritage the voice of religion itself is surprisingly absent. This came to the fore at an international conference on the theme “Sustaining Europe’s rural religious heritage” which was organised by the European Network for historic places of worship (FRH – Future for religious heritage) from the 29th of October till the 1st of November 2014 in Halle, Germany. Obviously one should (and must) admit that religion and theology in fact often have disqualified themselves and did not take active part in this debate. It seems that its spiritual heritage was more important than its material heritage to the church itself. Meanwhile other stakeholders, such as architects, art historians, lobbyists, and so on have taken over this task. What is more: these voices and concepts in the debate on sustaining religious heritage have become indispensable for the development of viable concepts for religious heritage.

Robert J.J.M. Plum

Robert J.J.M. Plum

Nevertheless: isn`t it remarkable that religion and theology hardly play a role in these debates? Churches have originally not been built as signs of architectural and art historical accomplishment, but as houses of prayer, as meeting houses for church services. Whoever regards churches nowadays from an exclusively architectural or art historical viewpoint seems to be in denial of the essential characteristic of these buildings. This stance towards religious buildings resembles a not all too uncommon exclusively musical view on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which forgets that this work originally was a religious work of art composed for liturgical use.

Not just for historical reasons, to pay due to the history of religious buildings, religion and theology should be involved in this debate. Especially the contemporary perspective shows that religious buildings still function for many as a place of contemplation and peace in everyday life, as a place where nothing is obligatory and one can feel accepted completely and regain strength if necessary.

Religious buildings are not exclusively important for members of one specific region anymore, but often for others, such as tourists as well. Obviously churches have, throughout their history, served several purposes and not exclusively religious ones. In its multifunctionality and multilingualism they can have an enormous appeal on diverse groups.

Escape rooms

An interesting phenomenon, the so-called “escape room” becomes growingly popular

Albert Gerhards

Albert Gerhards

globally. These escape rooms are inspired on virtual reality. In simulation of computer games two or more people are enclosed in a real place, modelled after virtual reality, and must try, by means of solving clues and puzzles, try to escape from this room. Apparently virtual reality does not replace the current need for `real reality`. It is unimaginable that virtual reality is not a part of our reality anymore. Also in the world of sacred space virtual churches are a standing reality. For instance the 3D online church or for those who want to attend a religious service, but do not have time to go: Virtual church; or to light a virtual candle in a virtual church ; or the virtual church St. Georg. Besides virtual churches there are also initiatives which aim to present real sacred spaces online. With regards to sustaining religious heritage there are interesting initiatives which aim to promote societal conscience, such as the Dutch initiative. For Germany we can mention “Straße der Moderne”, an ecumenical initiative which is currently developed by the German liturgical institute. In the Archdiocese of Cologne the initiative “Kirchennutzen” was developed in the context of the national Eucharistic conference 2013 Last virtual phenomena we wish to mention are the initiatives for digital sacred space, such as the digital atlas for sacred space of the Bauhaus University Weimar.

The need for an interdisciplinary approach which also includes theological points of view is essential in the development of new approaches. Religious buildings possess an intrinsic quality which does not equal other buildings. They are places of worship in which the life stories of people are intertwined with their relationship to the transcendent. Religious buildings still function as places of awe and contemplation even if the people visiting the religious sites are tourists and no longer members of the religious community. The aura of real sacred spaces is a feast for the senses and enables for people who have a distance to the church experiences of transcendence. Be this as it may, for many church buildings still function as an still unretrieved force.

There are theological grounds on which church buildings should not exclusively be considered as meeting spaces for the weekly church service which can be disposed of when they are not “used” anymore. Besides their still important use as places of worship and contemplation, an extended use is justifiable with reference to its original purpose: as places which facilitate the encounter with oneself, with other people, with the cosmos and not in the last place, with the transcendent. Odd as it may perhaps seem: a transformation can thus meet the original purpose of the building. As an example the church Zur Hl. Familie in Oberhausen, Germany can be mentioned. Transformations of sacred space can be an opportunity to reformulate the meaning and worth of religious heritage.

Only by means of change and adaption the old church buildings can be sustained for the future. They are concrete markers that not only refer to a certain history but point to a challenging future as well. There are several possibilities to make these possibilities fruitful: church pedagogy, artistic expressions, functioning as a meeting house, diverse contemplative leisure activities. Church buildings did not lose their attraction because of their religious characteristics; on the contrary: because of this religious dimension, nowadays church buildings even attract people who are not religiously socialised. These buildings could be appreciated in their function as a place of refuge, as an asylum, as a “shelter for the soul” for all people who are in search of a place without pressure on them. In this diaconal concept they could be the centre of city and rural life once again and positively influence the lives of the whole community as well as the Christian community.

Prof. Dr. Albert Gerhards is the Chairholder for Science of Liturgy at the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Bonn. His main research interests are the history, theology and practice of the liturgy, ecumenism, church music, church and art, sacred space, Judaism and Christianity.

Dr. Robert J.J.M. Plum is lecturer for ethics at the University of Applied Sciences NRW at Duisburg, lecturer of social philosophy at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf and spiritual counsellor. His main research interests are religion in the public domain, social philosophy and theological and philosophical hermeneutics.

Dr. Kim de Wildt is a research fellow at the Department of Liturgical Science at the University of Bonn. Her main research interests are in the fields of religious education, sacred space pedagogy, ritual studies and liturgy.