Society is changing – and so is its architecture: Where urban centers used to be dominated by towering ecclesiastical structures, old churches no longer meet the demands of modern congregations. At the same time, these imposing buildings often inspire today’s architects – and some surprising new uses. Join us to explore six of the most spectacular transformations.

Eat and drink: Alma de Cuba – Liverpool

Back in 1788, St. Peters Church was home to Liverpool’s first Catholic congregation. Since the 1970s, however, the striking building near the city’s Central Station has been falling into disuse. Restaurateurs spotted the potential and transformed St. Peters into Alma de Cuba, a blend of bar and restaurant with a Latin American twist. Their 2005 concept focused on underscoring the building’s impressive look and feel with long wooden tables framing bare brick walls, while the huge nave is illuminated by clever lighting design and a few carefully placed palm trees allude to the new theme. A popular choice for weddings, Alma de Cuba also attracts the crowds with its Sunday gospel choir brunch.

Stay and browse: Selexyz Dominicanen – Maastricht

Massive, monolithic bookshelves, spanning several levels, stretch almost to the roof of this 13th century Gothic nave. It’s a visual match made in heaven – and also a spiritual one, considering that world literature and scientific tomes have always been at home in old Dominican churches. Founded in 2006, the Selexyz Dominicanen bookstore in Maastricht claims to offer the Dutch city’s largest selection of printed works – well, they certainly have the space for it. What’s more, the team also hosts around 140 events a year, from readings to musical performances. Incidentally, this latest incarnation is by no means the only secular use the building has seen in recent years: Before its current bookstore guise, the church also served as a boxing ring and a bicycle storage facility.

Library inside of Selexyz Dominicanen transformed church
The church claims to offer Maastricht’s largest selection of printed works.
Photo: Domimicanenkerk

Pump and sweat: David Barton Gym Chelsea-Limelight – New York

Many athletes appreciate the meditative aspect of their workout. So, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that the David Barton Gym imperium opted to open a studio in a neo-Gothic church in Chelsea, New York City. Pumping iron under stained glass windows? Yoga on one of the newly added levels right underneath the venerable arches? Sounds intriguing – and this church has quite a history when it comes to working up a sweat. Back in the 1980s, housing the seminal Limelight club, it saw some wild parties and drew celebrities from Andy Warhol to Mick Jagger. David Barton decided to revamp this tradition with a changing roster of international live DJs, now spinning tunes to get you into the gym groove.

Gym equipment at the transformed church
The David Barton Gym used to be the club “Limelight”, a favourite of Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger.
Photo: David Barton Gym

Show and sell: König gallery – Berlin

Unlike most other churches on this list, St. Agnes in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district doesn’t conform to your average expectations of ecclesiastical architecture: Erected in the 1960s, this brutalist beauty is a prime example of the style’s stark, rectangular, and grey concrete nature. Only the tower hints at the building’s original purpose. This was architect Arno Brandlhuber’s aim: Inside, flat surfaces await, with no features to distract the eye. Skylights and small, indirect lightwells bathe the space in a soft radiance ideally suited for presenting art. Attracted by these characteristics, König now uses the nave as a gallery space after a subtle redesign by Brandlhuber. The remaining complex houses innovative companies and apartments. One thing, however, hasn’t changed – anyone who passes the ensemble still needs to invest a closer look to get an inkling of what’s inside.

Roll and chill: Skate Church – Llanera, Spain

Most repurposing efforts treat old churches with a maximum of respect: They change very little, opt for subtle color schemes, and preserve the church’s overall aura. Most efforts, that is. In the Northern Spanish town of Llanera, the Skate Church proves that it doesn’t take reverence to do this architecture justice. Here, street artist Okuda San Miguel filled the long unused structure with colorful, psychedelic motifs, faces, mythical creatures, and geometric structures. A huge halfpipe now dominates the nave. It was designed by the Church Brigade skate crew who also carried out all other changes and renovations. And while a crowdfunding campaign kicked in enough for the materials, a soft drinks company added some further funds to the mix. But what about spirituality? Don’t worry; it’s easy to lose yourself in the moves on the board. And to find yourself at the same time.

Skater in Skate Church Llanera
Street Artist Okuda San Miguel painted the church with different colourful patterns, faces and creatures.
Photo: Elchino Pomares

Live and thrive: Living Church – Chicago

Generous single-family home, first occupancy after full renovation and redesign, comes with bell tower and climbing wall. Or so an ad for the former church in Chicago’s Little Italy might claim, converted into a family home. Thrilled by the task, local firms Scrafano Architects and Linc Thelen Design left the outside of the 100+-year-old building almost untouched, but completely reshaped the interior. Now, the large, open main space resembles a loft and even includes a fireplace. In the kitchen, a beautiful stained glass window overlooks the city while the tower became an observation deck. And should the residents feel like a workout, they don’t even need to leave their bedroom since it comes with a decent-sized climbing wall.

Chicago transformed church
Trend spotted: Transforming churches into living spaces.
Photo: Scrafano Architects, Linc Thelen Design, Jim Tschetter