Rethinking the use of church buildings

Churches are losing more and more members. Services are poorly attended, and cost-saving measures will force parishes to sell off their buildings. How can churches be filled with new life and in this way regain their place at the heart of the community? Several student projects at h_da’s Faculty of Architecture have looked at how churches might be used in the future. Free of all censorship, the students have rethought the use of church buildings. Their visionary ideas should serve as inspiration for church communities.

The Catholic Church of St Michael in Frankfurt-Sossenheim is a huge concrete building from the late 1960s that covers 1,600 square metres. Inside, it is eerily quiet – and almost completely empty. The same applies to the Protestant Church of the Regenbogengemeinde (“Rainbow Community”) a few hundred metres away. At just under 300 square metres, the neo-Gothic building from 1898 is far smaller, but attendance is not much better.

Today, empty churches and dwindling membership are a major concern for many parishes. The pressure to save money, for example in response to the “ekhn 2030” programme of the Protestant Church in Hesse, poses an additional threat. A process of structural reform, but at the same time a drastic cost-saving measure that is forcing parishes to part with buildings. What can be done? Hanna-Lena Neuser, Director of the Evangelical Academy Frankfurt, has decided to launch an offensive. She has recognised that action is urgently needed and wants to encourage church communities to reinvent themselves. She asks: “What does the church want to be for people in the future?”

Radical ideas for church interiors

Neuser joined forces with Christian Holl, Regional Secretary of the Hessian Association of Architects, and Professor Lars Uwe Bleher from the Faculty of Architecture at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. The latter gathered twelve teams of students around him who were willing to spend a semester working on new ideas for church interiors. Together, they picked out the churches in Frankfurt-Sossenheim for their interdenominational project and gave it a name: “Metamorphosis – Church Buildings as Future Places of Encounter?"

First of all, Professor Lars Uwe Bleher and Katharina Körber, lecturer for special tasks, mounted their bikes together with their Master’s students to explore Frankfurt and the area surrounding the churches. In Sossenheim, Eugen Hildmann and Svenja Zimmermann quickly realised that “the churches are quite close to each other, but there is no connection between them and therefore none within the neighbourhood either.” In their design, they planted trees and shrubs in the streets between the churches, and added seating, new cycle paths and footpaths, and they even put plants on the façades of the church towers to send a striking visual message.

“Our ideas were really radical,” explains Eugen Hildmann. This is also reflected in the way that he and Svenja Zimmermann break away from the church buildings both in terms of their own ideas as well as with regard to the actual structures. What they envisage for the future is that everything which has so far taken place inside the church itself will be staged in and around the church buildings. They also want to revitalise the churches’ immediate surroundings for the general public, with sports facilities, restaurants and open-air church services. The aim is to develop a new centre around the Catholic Church, including a market square and a space for events. Society and church are to be more closely connected again.

Churches as hubs for social togetherness

They are taking a particularly bold approach to the interior of the Catholic Church. The aim is for the huge building to continue to serve the congregation as a space for church services and community life in the future, too, but above all it will also be used by local citizens. The students are planning to install containers inside the church that can be rented flexibly for a wide variety of purposes, such as tutoring sessions or band rehearsals. Basically, for activities that already take place, but so far in the parish hall. Concerts, bazaars, or weekly markets are also conceivable. “We want to create more points of contact between the two worlds,” explains Svenja Zimmermann.

The church as a new centre for social interaction in the future – quite a fundamental change for traditionalists, especially as the students plan to designate only a small area in the church building for conventional religious use. The large hall can be used flexibly for larger church services, but it can also be put to other purposes. Hanna-Lena Neuser understands that some people are initially sceptical towards bold and completely new approaches. “But they quickly appreciate that we are taking the time to think about it. The church should also be a place for society and not just for the baptised. Moreover, churches have always been places where people come together. All we are doing now is going ‘back to the roots’, but under new conditions,” says Neuser. “In any case, the students’ work has benefited both Sossenheim churches, as the pressure on them is very high.”

The ideas for the Protestant Church in Sossenheim, which is smaller, are a little less radical. Here, the students have come up with a curtain system for the interior that divides the space flexibly and as required. It is precisely this flexible use of interior spaces that runs like a thread through many of the students’ designs, such as in the project that Professor Henning Baurmann and Professor Robert Zeimer put into practice with student teams for the St. Maria-Frieden Church in Calw-Wimberg, Baden-Württemberg. Among the students’ ideas for the Catholic Church’s building from the 1960s are movable walls, a mobile altar and an artist’s studio in the bell tower.

“What do we do with buildings that are no longer adequately used?”

The students’ ideas are, however, not merely intellectual shenanigans. The professors are urging society to engage in a serious discussion about the future of church buildings. “What do we do with buildings that are no longer adequately used?” asks Professor Henning Baurmann. “There is a need for society to communicate, otherwise investors will take over.” At the same time, he also sees this rethinking of how church buildings are utilised as a measure against social divide. Professor Lars Uwe Bleher agrees. “Churches, as ‘third places’, allow people to meet socially in a non-commercial way and without consumerism. To do this, however, we need to close ranks as a community and find solutions for buildings that would otherwise be sold off.”

Stadtkirche Darmstadt, the City Church, is not at issue. However, opening up the building even more has long been something close to Pastor Karten Gollnow’s heart. Cultural events take place here on a regular basis, and he can also imagine expanding and converting the City Church into a “spiritual and cultural meeting place in the city centre. Churches have, in fact, always been a city’s central meeting places per se, places for social encounter, culture and art, religion, for business and for festivities.” He contacted Professor Anke Mensing and her research assistant Céline Grieb, who together with their students set about developing ideas for the future use of the church.

The students produced 17 designs, which were presented to the public in the church. They had studied the building in detail beforehand, worked on site for a whole week, experienced everyday life and sometimes even spent the night in the church. One of them, Elisa Wagner, focused in particular on the nave and the chancel. To let more light into the church, in her design she placed the gallery further back, added stairs to make it more accessible and hung drapes to allow a more flexible use. She has no inhibitions about the future use of the choir area either. It can be partitioned off with curtains and used as an exhibition space, for example.

Encourage other church communities to approach new partners

In their design, Liska Bittel, Julia Lelito, Leonie Müller and Roberto Gabriel light up the church from the inside. They have placed two large, illuminated cubes in the side aisles to draw visitors’ attention. To indicate that the building is open, the entrance is also lit up. Pastor Karsten Gollnow welcomes such designs that open up the church to the outside world. Changes to the inside are not an issue for him either: “In earlier days, alteration work was carried out on churches all the time,” he says. But what happens next with the students’ visionary ideas? “Their work has shown which of the wishes put forward by the City Church can and cannot be put into practice, and it is certainly a good basis for preparing the architecture competition that the church is planning,” says Professor Anke Mensing.

In a nutshell, students can be a source of stimulating ideas and incentives, thinks Professor Lars Uwe Bleher. To find ways to implement them, however, church communities need to join forces with society. “What is important now is to encourage other churches to approach new partners,” says Hanna-Lena Neuser. “Many are feeling the pressure right now, instead of involving people who perhaps have nothing to do with the church in general and are therefore free in their ideas.” In Frankfurt-Sossenheim, the students’ ideas are continuing to make an impact. An exhibition of their designs is planned for early 2024 to encourage people to think about and discuss the future of church buildings. Hanna-Lena Neuser would be happy for the h_da students to remain involved in the project. “Because the depth of detail and professionalism of their designs is impressive.”


Simon Colin
University Communications
Tel.: +49.6151.16-38036

Translation: Sharon Oranski