Adapting The Sacred To Be Profane

It’s easy to show images of adaptive reuse. Dynamic visuals are created by the contrast between living history and control. However, adaptive reuse has a deeper meaning. Architecture is human and architecture changes with humanity.

The Rust Belt of factory expansion in and around American cities was destroyed by the advent of a global economy. As the internet revolutionizes consumer spending, we are witnessing the end of suburban shopping malls. The Covid-induced Zooming of the Office World will forever change the landscape of high-rise commercial buildings, it is now commonplace.

 Medieval Mile Museum Kilkenny, Ireland McCullough Mulvin Architects. Image © Roman Robroek

Houses of worship are another type of building that is undergoing cultural transformation. Pew’s 2015 study “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, showed that a new generation was leaving organized religion. Patheos estimates that up to 10,000 churches in America close each year. PRRI’s 2017 survey showed that 30% of Americans were “spiritual, but not religious”, and that the majority of them are young. This will lead to more people rejecting organized religion.

Tas's Church Sopuerta, Spain Garmendia Cordero Arquitectos. Image © Roman Robroek

These buildings are very unique. Architecture that participates in ritual, allusion, storytelling, and worship together is required. These buildings are often characterized by extraordinary craftsmanship, exquisite detail, and exceptional material use. These places of worship do not produce anything; they are there to help people connect to a greater reality than the one they live in – which is a difficult task. How is the spirituality of humans changing if churches are less in demand? Is God becoming less relevant or is culture embracing spirituality in a more architectural way?

These changes have obvious practical consequences. Because churches are older, their sites can often be of value. These buildings are now of greater importance than their economic value in an age of green consciousness. We can also learn from how we treat buildings that were once built to worship God, aside from the desire for sustainability.

Although factories can be reconstructed into storage units, housing units or offices, it is much more difficult to revise buildings that were once built for the glory of God. Houses of worship attempt to preserve a spiritual essence. A structure is deconsecrated if it has been used for sacred purposes, but not its history.

We should be able to evaluate our values in the face of change. New England’s virgin forests were cleared over 300 years ago to create farmland. This left 10% of the land unforested. The Midwest was the first place where farming moved. This was because of the railroad, which made it impossible to farm on poor land and with short growing seasons. These fields were abandoned by people, much like the places they worship. While some farming is still done, the glacial moraine-filled New England landscape was cleared of all old growth forests. The fields also left behind 238,000 miles of stone walls. These walls, which are now hidden in new growth forests, may be the most significant evidence of human change in the world.

 Abandoned church, Italy . Image © Roman Robroek

The shift from religious belief as a cultural foundation in American life to living with no religious presence will result in a wave of cultural adaptation. This flood of change will affect how we view ourselves and what we value.

We ignore history if we disregard sacred intentions. It is an oxymoron to pretend that humans create sacred things. We, the profane, cannot touch the sacred. It is beyond our reach. All those worship centers are failing because they believe that humans can control the sacred.

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