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From churches to fast-food restaurants: how cities transform their unused places

Western life has long been revolving around the church and the factory — yet, what happens when parishioners do not turn in anymore? When the industry winds down? Old places are transformed, claimed by new groups and used for different purposes.

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Born again

Feel like eating a full KFC bucket of chicken wings in a church downtown Dalian, China? In 1949, the red building on Youhao Square was a Protestant temple. Nowadays, it shelters an American fast-food restaurant. The 6 million denizens in Dalian are not particularly surprised; they have witnessed many a stunning conversion of the old edifices that were built during the Japanese, Russian and British occupations; they are not the only ones around the globe.

Once holy, these places at the very heart of the urban fabric were gradually abandoned, until they were given a new birth when they were adapted to contemporary needs. The urban landscape performs as “forests of symbols” which observe city-dwellers “with understanding eyes.”

NYC — Ladies Mile: Limelight Marketplace, Wally Gobetz via Flickr Licence CC

In New York City, a church in Manhattan also underwent an uncommon transformation. Built in 1844, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion was turned into a hot spot of New York’s nightlife in 1983. Music maniacs rallied to dance to the roaring sounds of techno, goth and industrial music.

The former church later hosted the Limelight Market-Place mall before it was recently converted into a gym.

In Montreal, the soaring prices of real estate have spurred a new market, which converts old chapels into luxury apartments. Simultaneously, Parisians developed a recent passion for Sunday brunch, which can now be fulfilled under the vaults and naves of great French churches.

How can we account for these changes? First, the number of Christians has declined, with a 10% loss in France between 1947 and 2011 according to the Ifop. Also, believers come in fewer numbers and repair and maintenance costs have become increasingly expensive… Moreover, local collectivities have been faced with a growing necessity: rehabilitating these central places at a time when the city itself has become overcrowded.

Historic and holy symbols never lay too far away from the city, no matter how their relationship to cult evolves.

Old Detroit Theater Converted To Parking Garage, Bob Jagendorf via Flickr Licence CC
“Nothing comes from nothing”

According to historian Mona Ozouf, the sacred has been transferred to other customs and places. Media discourse has enhanced this cultural shift when it came to qualifying iconic places in big cities: museums and theaters are referred to as “temples of culture” and factories are seen as “industrial cathedrals”…

The Tate Modern Gallery embodies a subtle combination of the city’s industrial patrimony and the holiness of culture. Since 2000, the former Bankside Power Station in the working-class district of Bankside, which was severely hit by the second industrial revolution, is an emblem of London’s thriving cultural life.

“[…] there is in this round a set of courts and small streets which for number, viciousness, poverty and crowding is unrivalled in anything I have hitherto seen in London … the inhabitants are … the dregs of the population’’.
Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London, 1889

The chasm between the working-class history of the former power station and the sporadic contemporary dance performances that take place in its former turbine hall today is highly symbolic of this urban evolution…

Interestingly, this process is under control: many sky-scrapers rising in the sky surround the former plant and mark London’s sharp turn towards an exclusively service-oriented economy — it seems that the City’s leading financial actors have a taste for the adaptation of old factories into new homes for culture.

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The symbolic reusing of old buildings and, more broadly, the constant functional evolutions these urban edifices undergo suggest that they are more than just places.

“We do not live in a white neutral space; we do not live or die or love within the rectangle of a sheet of paper. We live and die and love within the limits of a colored, crisscrossed, cut up space (…)”

Michel Foucault, Les Hétérotopies, aired on France-Culture, December 7th, 1966

The city: a home to unending change

Cities reclaim their unused spaces in many different ways: giving a new function to an old building is but one of the many instances of urban transformation; this process can also be lead by locals and visitors. For instance, memorials are conceptualized so as to adapt to the evolutions of collective memory. The Holocaust Memorial performs as such.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was built on the ruins of the official chancellery building of the Third Reich– today, kids play around the stone pillars and the memorial has become a surprising setting for selfies. Architect Peter Eisenman, who designed the memorial, had early understood, if not hoped for, the integration of his work to the urban scenery:

“I think that people will sit on the stelae to eat their lunch. I’m sure that skaters will use the place; people will dance on the stelae. So many unexpected things will happen here. Some will also try to vandalize the memorial — yet this is how things go, it is the voice of the people.

Indeed, using a place to pay homage to a city’s past is always a twofold project, which also puts the city’s future into perspective. These numerous mutations, either functional or symbolic, point out that there is nothing but change that never changes.

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