To restore or ignore: Europe is looking for answers on what to do with its religious heritage buildings

There are so many religious buildings in Europe, how can we possibly keep and restore them all? Or should we even try? Big questions, but a conference in Aachen is trying to formulate answers. Image: ryasick/Canva

They dominate the skyline of many European villages, towns and cities: church towers, minarets or synagogues. And many citizens consider these buildings heritage, so they need to be preserved. Sometimes they even need to be reconstructed. But that’s not a straightforward matter, notices architect and Future for Religious Heritage committee member Marcus van der Meulen: “The elephant in the room is always authenticity.”

The question of how we should organise these interventions is not new at all reckons Van der Meulen. “Already after the First and Second World Wars people were trying to figure out how to rebuild churches after they were destroyed. And since the Notre Dame fire and the ongoing war in Ukraine, that question has only become more relevant.”

“It’s always a bit arbitrary to pick one point in time and present it as authentic”, says Van der Meulen. Image: Courtesy of Marcus van der Meulen

Enough reasons for a proper discussion thinks the Belgian architect. That’s why he is organising a conference at the university he is affiliated with, RWTH Aachen University, in Germany. With the ‘Reconstruction of religious buildings in 20th and 21st Century Europe’ conference, his goal is to create a historical framework, by bringing all sorts of experts from different countries together.

“I want to show how we ended up in the current situation, and what sort of answers we’ve come up with when it comes to reconstruction.” And instead of looking at ‘how’ you can reconstruct religious buildings, the first question should always be ‘why’.

Different Approaches

At first sight, the topic might seem a bit ‘academic’ or ‘stuffy’ matter, away from the realities of everyday life. But that’s far from the truth says Van der Meulen, as these interventions do have far-reaching consequences for how our world looks like today. “During a project about WWI, I visited St. Martin’s church in Ypres/Ieper, a town in Flanders. After it was destroyed during the war, they built a replica of the church in a 19th-century style. They happened to have restoration drawings lying around, and reconstructed it almost stone by stone.” But in nearby villages – which were all heavily damaged – local authorities and state architects chose a completely different approach.

“For example, in Zonnebeke (10 km to the west of Ypres edt.), they did the exact opposite. Instead of building a replica of the original church, they constructed one of the first modernist churches in Belgium. And in another village, Mesen/Messines, they decided to do an archaeological survey, upon which they discovered a forgotten crypt of historical importance.” Three reconstructions of medieval churches in West Flanders, three different approaches.

After the war, the Belgian state was faced with the issue of what to do with many destroyed religious buildings, such as the ruins of St. Martin’s church in Ypres/Ieper. Image: NARA via Pingnews (Public Domain)

The age-old authenticity question

Nonetheless, different approaches spark discussion. “The elephant in the room is always authenticity. Because what is deemed authentic, and why? Or even to whom?”, Van der Meulen points out. And he’s not the first to ask these questions. Take for example the Venice Charter of 1964, the International Charter for Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites. If there are rules for reconstruction, you’d expect to find them here.

“But even the charter is not very clear about authenticity. So preservation committees try to keep the building construction in its original state.” However, if you have an old building, often a lot has changed over the years. “So it’s always a bit arbitrary to pick one point in time and present it as authentic”, says Van der Meulen. “The Palatine Chapel in Aachen certainly doesn’t look the way it did when it was built in the 8th century. But obviously, no one argues that it’s not authentic.”

Besides the philosophical question, there’s the concrete issue that time or war can cause problems which require an intervention to keep the building from collapsing. But what’s exactly allowed? “You saw a huge discussion with the Notre Dame”, remembers Van der Meulen. “People wondered: ‘Should we use similar beams made from oak wood as they were before the fire? Or should we use a steel construction, which is less of a fire hazard?’ For the Notre Dame, they choose the wooden beams, but I know of a church in Brussels which picked the latter option.”


Sometimes reconstruction is not even about the material or building plan itself but has a lot more to do with politics. With speakers such as Thomas Albrecht, who deals with the difficult reconstruction of the 18th century Garrison Church of Potsdam, Van der Meulen hopes the conference will show what to do during such circumstances.

From the 19th century to 2020: the Garnison Church an icon of Potsdam, is now being restored. Image: (l) painting by Carl Hasenpfluge (1827) and Pointer234/Wikimedia (both Public Domain)

 “Some conservators argue you shouldn’t reconstruct it because it was bombed, and then deliberately blown up in 1968. But it also has a history that involves Prussian emperors, Bismarck and Hitler. That plays a role as well”, Van der Meulen explains. “But many people from Potsdam want to rebuild it. For them, it’s a part of their history, an icon of the city’s skyline.” That last part is a crucial part of the restoration debate if it’s up to Van der Meulen.

Citizens make Heritage

Because with all this discussion about what’s historically authentic, it’s easy to forget that communities are a vital part of heritage making. And if those communities are not around anymore because of secularisation or other reasons, you might run into problems, Van der Meulen believes.

“Think of the synagogue in Worms; Susanne Urban will speak about how they reconstructed the synagogue after WWII as part of the Wiedergutmachung (a gesture by the German government to compensate for those who suffered during the Nazi era) for the Jewish community. However, they didn’t involve any member of the Jewish community in the process. So the reconstruction was purely done from a political point of view.”

After a long restoration process (picture from 2004), who will pay for the St. George church in Wismar now that it’s finished? Image: Andreas Eichholz/Wikimedia (Public Domain)

Or the reconstruction of the St. George church in Wismar. “Anja Rasche and Nils Jörn will explain how after the reunification of Germany, heritage enthusiasts started reconstructing it. Now they have this magnificent church, but also many new challenges: how shall this church be used, is there a community with a connection to the building that is willing to pay for its upkeep?”

The Romanesque design of the St. Gertrude church. Image: Courtesy of Marcus van der Meulen

Thankfully, there are also cases that do keep the community in mind. “And I’m not just talking about the Notre Dame where you saw a huge international movement to restore it”, says Van der Meulen. He returns to Belgium, where his story began. “The village of Nivelles had to make a decision about how to restore the tower of the medieval St. Gertrude church, which was heavily bombed during WWII.”

After debating which design would fit best, the authorities decided the community that would use and care for the building should have a say. “Citizens were presented with three possible designs. Through a referendum, they picked the hypothetical design based on the original Romanesque style of the church.”

Lots to learn

It turns out, dealing with all these religious buildings in Europe is not just a matter of reconstruction techniques, bickering architects and art historians, or historical research. “Perhaps we in Western Europe are too much focused on the building, the stones, the material. Asian cultures treat heritage as a living thing. They attach meaning to places, rituals and communities instead of materiality. I think we can learn a lot from that”, Van der Meulen concludes.

The conference would certainly be a start to showcase these ideas. Because without a community to take care of a building and assign meaning to it, all that remains is a bunch of stones, how aesthetically pleasing they may be.

The conference ‘Reconstruction of religious buildings in 20th and 21st century Europe. Monuments, Heritage and Identity‘ takes place on 25 and 26 September 2023 at the Reiff Museum in Aachen, which is run by the RWTH Aachen Univeristy in Germany. All the presentations will be simultaneously live-streamed for participants joining remotely, who will also be able to interact and submit their questions. Participation in person in Aachen is free, but registration is mandatory.