Faith buildings and local communities

What is the role of faith buildings in today’s society and how can historic faith buildings be revitalised and re-energised by connecting with their local communities? This is a question we have been exploring for almost 5 years now as part of Empowering Design Practices and in this time we have found many examples of projects which creatively developed, refurbished, adapted or simply reordered such buildings for and with their surrounding communities, while preserving their history and function as places of worship. We have found that there is no one solution or approach to follow, and that successful transformation is a unique response to a web of needs, wants, values and parameters associated with architecture, faith, community and culture.

An interesting example is Bow Church, which is one of the groups we have been working with over the duration of this project. This church has stood at the centre of the local community in Bow, East London, for over 700 years and is an integral part of the local history. Today it is planted at the centre of a busy road and although many activities are hosted in the place (including for example a food bank as well as concerts and heritage walks) the space has a huge untapped potential to act as a community hub.

To test interest from new local groups to use the space for their activities, the church (with the help of our project) recently run a competition and the winners had the opportunity to run karate and salsa classes in the space. The project team was there on the day to support the running of the event and offer arts and crafts activities for families. It was bizarre and wonderful to see these healthy, energetic activities happen in the space which felt enlivened with good spirit and laughter.

The church has previously made some important changes to their building, which enabled these activities to happen. With the help of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, they had carried out important renovations to the fabric of the building but also made small interior changes. They were able to replace the original wooden pew chairs with more flexible seating that can be easily lifted and stacked to create space (and selling the original pews helped generate some additional funding). They also developed new movable hospitality furniture which helped remove some of the clutter near the entrance and create a more elegant space for serving tea, coffee and cake. They are currently working to develop more accessible toilet facilities and utilise the outdoor garden to welcome people in.

Bow Church is a good example of the complexities that surround such projects. Some of the challenges that the church faces still remain. For example, many people find it difficult to cross the threshold of a religious building, especially when they come from a different faith, and there is no parking available on the site, which makes large events more difficult to run. The future of the space remains to be seen, and how relationships with the wider community will change and evolve. Yet, it seems to me that if there is a will, there is a way, but that will needs to be explored both within and outside the congregation, and solutions to be found collaboratively. Collaborative design is crucial to the development of sustainable solutions for historic faith buildings that will serve community purposes.







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