8 FEASIBILITY STUDIES ON THE TRANSFORMATION OF PARISH CHURCHES IN FLANDERS | COMMISSIONED BY PROJECTBUREAU HERBESTEMMING KERKEN
In Flanders, similar to other regions, parish churches are facing one of the most important challenges since their construction: reactivating or even reinventing their central role and position in a desacralising society. Due to a decreasing number of visitors, an ageing population of the traditional catholic community, the impending shortage of volunteers, fewer priests who are already overbooked, the high maintenance and exploitation costs, a series of multicultural and multi-religious questions, etc., it seems parish churches are no longer fit to face the current needs and opportunities. Conversely, parish churches could still be regarded as important anchor points in local communities.
The goal of our studies, commissioned by the Flemish Government as part of the broader research platform “Herbestemming Kerken”, is to initiate and feed a constructive dialog between all actors (religious and local authorities, neighbourhood residents, institutions in close vicinity such as schools, markets, libraries, scout groups, etc.). From valorisation of the status quo, through joint use and multifunctionality by shared use in time and/or space, and last but not least, actual transformation, a variety of scenarios was explored through research-by-design, focussing on spatial opportunities of a strategic and sustainable approach.
The study revealed a common range of threats linked to transformation processes of such valuable sites: interventions prevailing the role of certain actors over others, creating an imbalance in the debate; concepts diminishing the role of the site within the community; economical aspects such as building costs, maintenance costs and operating costs. A total privatisation of the parish church may seem beneficiary at first, however this implies giving up on the public character of the place. Moreover, a sacred building is not a traditional property and as such doesn’t comply to standard investment logics of expenses, return on investment and profit, raising the question of vulnerability and sustainability of any kind of revitalisation. Recent transformation examples demonstrate that a conscious and well-debated process is key, aiming at broad support and addressing (seemingly contradictory) interests, the specificity of the location, and flexibility in future use, in a long-term perspective. These vision studies mark the next step in the transformation process.