On one of the first sunny days of the year, I start the four-storey climb up to the bell tower of Absalons Kirke. I reach the top landing and Henrik Gadegaard opens up the windows, letting in a cool breeze.
“We just took the church bells out a few days ago,” Gadegaard says. “We’re not sure what we’ll do with the space yet, but we’ve discussed converting it into a hotel room available only to those who have been married here.”
It is difficult to imagine what the bells looked like when they were there, or how far they could be heard when they rang. All that remains in the now-empty room is the mechanism for the tower clock and the view over Vesterbro. Sønder Boulevard snakes below like a green river dotted with jungle gyms, skateboard ramps, and basketball courts.
Gadegaard is the business director of Absalons Kirke’s redevevelopment into a community centre. After serving as a church for around 80 years, the church was put on the market and bought last year for 10.25 million kroner by Lennart Lajboschitz, the mastermind behind the Tiger chain of stores.
We head downstairs and survey the immense, half-empty nave from the balcony where the organ once stood. There’s space for almost 300 people beneath the vaulted ceiling, but the pews are now stacked on one side of the building. The radiators hidden below are now bare and exposed.
“No decisions have been made on the pews. But we’re working on brainstorming some new applications. And in the basement, we’re adding toilets and showers that will be available for public use,” says Gadegaard.
Lajboschitz’s ambitious vision for Absalons Kirke is not his first foray into cultural life. Last year, he opened the Tiger Spil Bar, what he calls an ‘anti-café’ in the city centre, where people can meet over a game of table tennis, backgammon, chess or just pop by for a cup of coffee.
His vision is for Absalon Kirke to become something similar.
“We hope that the place can become a catalyst – a space where your thoughts and values can be transformed into actions,” Lajboschitz explains.
It’s a counter-intuitive proposal – a church that looks like a church and smells like a church but isn’t a church. Repurposing churches is not a new idea, however, and Lajboschitz believes this one will fulfil a new need in the community.“My mission here is to provide the ideal conditions for social cohesion. It’s what I believe in. We hope to create a ‘hyggelig’ setting where you can be with your girlfriend, boyfriend, father, mother, kids, grandkids, friends and so on. And have fun. If we do that, then we will have succeeded.”
New Times, New Solutions
In 2013, the Diocese of Copenhagen put forward 14 churches for closure in response to the dropping number of church members in the city. The government agreed to close just eight of them.
Several of these churches found new congregations, such as Bavnehøj Kirke, which now houses the Serbian Orthodox Church, while three, including Absalons Kirke, were put on the market. The sales of Blågårds Kirke and Samuels Kirke, both in Nørrebro, are being handled by commercial real estate firm Colliers International.
Peter Lassen, Colliers’ chief operating officer and partner in commercial real estate, finds himself in a unique position, operating in a relatively new market while trying to find suitors that meet the high standards of Folkekirken’s independent outreach organisation, Kirkefondet.
“We conduct an intensive screening process of every bidder, because we can only present offers that our seller, Kirkefondet, is willing to consider,” he explains.
After the successful sale of Absalons Kirke to Lajboschitz, they also managed to sell Samuels Kirke in Nørrebro, which will be converted into youth apartments. With only Blågårds Kirke remaining, Lassen and his team want to find an even more radical solution.
The possibilities with these types of properties are nearly endless, they argue. To prove it, they hosted a design competitions for students who were asked to come up with ideas for repurposings the properties, with the goal of inspiring potential buyers.
“Students often have a different way of thinking than established professionals do. They aren’t concerned with the various restrictions surrounding historical and preserved buildings, or the economic aspects of a development process. And these factors can become limiting,” Lassen says, adding that students tend to focus on ‘softer’ values.
“These are values that Kirkefondet is also very interested in embracing and finding in potential buyers.”
The person responsible for reviewing all the submissions is Louis Becker, a partner and International Director at Henning Larsen Architects, who is looking for ideas that open the church up and turn it into an integrated public space.
The winner won’t necessarily see their ideas materialise, Lassen hastens to add. Instead, the competition is about starting a conversation about the property, and inspiring bidders in the process.
A New Dawn
Today on Sønder Boulevard, Absalons Kirke is in the early stages of a transformation that will see it switch gears from a place of worship to a community centre – from a place of ritual to a home for spontaneity.
“We are planning to be open from seven to midnight during the week, and until two AM on the weekends, so we’ll need a lot of activities in order to keep the place buzzing all the time,” says Lajboschitz excitedly. “We hope to be able to cooperate with all the many fantastic things that are happening in Vesterbro every day.”
The gravity of the task facing Lajboschitz and Gadegaard isn’t lost on them.
“A church is a spiritual place. And in that way, this space is perfect to live out the mission that we have for it,” Lajboschitz concludes. M