Heritage, architecture and reuse of church buildings in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands many church buildings are empty or in danger of losing their religious use. The reuse of these church buildings is an important question and social challenge. Architecture plays an essential role in this process. The issue is certainly not exclusive to the Netherlands. However, because of specific historical and social circumstances this country is a forerunner.

The big challenge lies in the near future. But now the problem is clearly addressed by religious denominations, governments and social organizations. We can speak of an ‘interim stage’, a kind of preparation phase of the future task: hard confrontation with the problem; analysis of (im)possibilities and opportunities; search for the meaning of church buildings in a phase of social reorientation (secularization, post-industrial society, hyper consumerism); revision of conservation philosophies and heritage visions, as most of the church buildings are officially designated as monuments. This requires the definition of stakeholders and partners, such as determining the relationship of government, market and church, and the internal restructuring of church organizations, as they lose members. And from the architectural world, the orientation on the role of architecture as an autonomous discipline. In the phase we are currently in, we find „interim” facilities and successful or less successful solutions, but still individual projects in anticipation of a final transformation of the entire „landscape of churches” in the Netherlands. The aim is to make such individual projects into a coherent project, as urban planner Joan Busquets said: ‘a project of projects’.

The reallocation of church buildings is not only a practical and professional task, but also a challenge to the architectural discipline. The current architectural approach to church buildings was based on a traditional theological aesthetic, in which architecture and visual art are expressions of religious symbolism. This aesthetic is no longer adequate in a secularized world. A new conceptual and theoretical framework is necessary. In the meantime transformation of religious heritage has become a part of architectural education.

Religious landscape

The most important religious denominations in the Netherlands are the Roman Catholic and Protestant Church. The last church comes from the Reformation. Protestantism separated from the Roman Catholic Church some 500 years ago. In addition to theological differences, there was also an institutional difference: the Protestant church organized itself locally. The local religious communities are therefore autonomous in the Netherlands, they have their own church building and, besides a religious community, they are also property owners and operators. At the Roman Catholic Church there is a national umbrella: the bishops’ conference, which can make decisions that affect the local parishes. But also in this denomination local communities are economically owner of their own church building. In addition to church buildings, also many monasteries belong to Roman Catholic religious real estate. Many of these lose their original function too.

Particularly within the Roman Catholic Church it is expected that around 30% of the churches will be withdrawn from the ongoing use over a period of about 15 years and that another 30% will be in an economic danger zone.

Monuments and heritage policy

Although the denominations are the owners of a church building the (national, provincial and municipal) authorities have the monopoly to designate monuments. That has happened in the course of time. Grosso modo 60% of the church buildings is a (potential) monument. This means that the religious denominations – unintended – are nationally (one of) the largest actors in the maintenance, restoration and exploitation of immovable heritage.

Due to the increasing amount of official monuments as a result of the heritage-by-designation-policy a discussion arises. It is no longer tenable to designate buildings as a monument that have lost their (original) function. The static ‘museification’ of heritage, the formation of a collection of architectural icons to remind us of history and culture, is replaced by a heritage approach in which buildings can develop over time, are part of an urban ensemble and are re-used for new functions. Although reserve exists to deprive church buildings of their monumental status, more ‘transformation space’ is offered to adapt these buildings and reconstruct them for new use.


The transformation of the landscape of churches in the Netherlands is a complex challenge. Until now architecture focuses on individual projects, of which we will give some examples.

(1) The Roman-Catholic Sint Jacobschurch in ‘s Hertogenbosch, a neo-byzantine building from beginning of 20th Century (architects Jos Cuypers and Jan Stuyt), is now in use as a permanent exhibition center devoted to the life and work of the medieval artist Jeroen Bosch. His typical works to some extend continue the mysterious character of the church building.

(2) The Church of Our Lady (Halfweg) is an example of radical architectural transformation. By demolishing the part of the building with insurmountable problems of foundation and cracking walls, it became possible to rescue a smaller part, both for ecclesiastical and multifunctional use. It was financed by the redevelopment of the released building land. (BaB-architects).

(3) Due to a decreasing church attendance the parish decided to sell the Sacrament Church in Gouda in 2005 to a housing association. Initially, the church administration wanted to demolish the building, fearing ‘misplaced’ use for the building. The residents of the neighborhood wanted to keep the building that functioned as a landmark.
Parish council and bishop could only be persuaded to sell after it became clear what the new function of the church building would be, namely a health center. Parts of the original church building were retained, such as a small chapel as a prayer room and an extra room for vigils, as well as pews, organ balcony, stained glass windows and holy water bins. The bronze bells are still present and sound regularly. Inside the church, a three-story steel framework was built for the health center’s rooms. The entrance to the center was located at the back of the church building, so that the main entrance was preserved in its original state. The church was designated as a monument by the municipality. Responsible architect: Gerrit Bikker, Van Abken Schrauwen architects, IJsselstein

(4) The former Protestant Raphaelkerk (1928) in Amsterdam-South is a typical Protestant church building from the interbellum period, example of the Amsterdam School-style (architects S. Beekman, M. Kooi) The building was reconstructed for the use of dwelling and offices. (Foto’s by Brigitte Linskens)

(5) A rather simple church in Lichtenvoorde from the sixties, a kind of wooden box (architect Gerard Schouten), lost its religious use, but remained as the center of a complex for dwelling based on a structure of courts, a project of Architectural Office PRO Atelier, The Hague. The former sanctuary turned inside out as courtyard.

(6) In Eindhoven a complex consisting of a monastery, chapel and church in the center of the city is transformed by Cooperation DELA in a center for meetings, congresses and funeral services. The buildings are connected by a modern structure called `The Knot´. Altars, statues of saints, icons and confessional boxes disappear to create space and light. (Architectural offices: Diederendirrix architecten & architecten ENEN. Landscape: Bureau Lubbers. Interior: King Kongs)


The transformation of the ‘landscape of churches’ is a big challenge. Due to declining ecclesiastical involvement the existence of many church buildings is no longer self-evident. Nevertheless, they often represent monumental value, community spirit, and function as landmarks in city and countryside. Many church buildings are considered ‘common good’; there are many interests and stakeholders, but not every party contributes financially. This means a big burden for the church owners.

The landscape of churches is richly varied. The medieval Gothic churches in the big cities are often arranged already for multiple use, in addition to religious activities there are concerts, exhibitions and congresses. Their place in town and country is generally accepted. This does not apply to the later churches or buildings in the periphery.

Many factors play a role in reusing or disposing: religious and monumental significance, emotional involvement of churchgoers, visual ownership of local residents. The example projects show that many solutions are possible. The church building is structurally transformed in a less or more radical manner and made suitable for new functions. In contrast to the phenomenon of secularization as declining ecclesiastical involvement, the cause of the surplus of church buildings, the re-use of these buildings can be regarded as a process of positive secularization: these typical buildings are turned over tot the secular world, to the market and non-religious institutions and civil society. This process of ‘material secularization’ does not have to be a painful process for the churches, if the religious dimension of their buildings is valued and treated with respect. This is especially a challenge for the architectural discipline. Necessary is a profound reflection on this subject. A condition therefore is, however, that official conservation policy offers room for transformation of monumental church buildings. That is why the architectural discipline has to contribute – by thinking and doing- to heritage paradigms that do not ‘fix’ historical buildings in time.

Although the problem plays in many countries, the Netherlands is a forerunner. National government has recognized the problem and is working with church parties, heritage institutions etc. to work out future strategies (National Agenda for the Future of Religious Heritage). Architecture will gradually begin to see that a completely new field of work has arisen here, from which the discipline can derive prestige.

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