A Higher Calling

In converting a historic church to a bookstore, a Dutch firm honors the spirit of the architecture.

The friars who lived in medieval Maastricht, the Netherlands’ oldest city, would not have too much in common with today’s more materialistic inhabitants. “Maastricht people like good food, good wine, and good clothing,” says Eve­lyne Merkx, founder of Amsterdam-based arch­itecture firm Merkx + Girod. Indeed, the city hosts four Michelin-starred restaurants, its shopping districts count 16 million visitors each year, and the friars’ former homes are being turned into dens of commerce.

Maastricht’s church-conversion trend began in 2005 with the opening of Kruisherenhotel, where Vos Interieur and Ingo Maurer transformed the derelict 570-year-old Crutched Friar church and monastery into the most expensive hotel in the city. Last year Merkx + Girod converted the local Dominican Church, which was inaugurated in 1294, into the bookstore Selexyz Dominicanen. The Dominicans had abandoned the 8,600-square-foot church in 1794, at the start of the 20-year French occupation. Since then, the building has been devoted to uses ranging from housing the city archives to storing motorcycles and bikes. Though the municipal government called for restorers Satijnplus to repair damaged limestone columns and remove the motor-oil and bicycle-grease stains from old graves that had paved the church floor, Selexyz’s owner, BGN, intended to add its own blemish to the structure: a second floor to shelve more books.

To provide Selexyz with 13,000 square feet of retail space without blocking shoppers’ views of the soaring Gothic arches and quatrefoil windows, Merkx + Girod instead proposed building a freestanding three-story “bookcase” along one side of the nave, which has the added benefit of letting customers browse at a loftier altitude. “The first thing we said is we want to go high,” Merkx says. “I was brought up Catholic in a convent in the south of Holland, and you never in your life see the church up high. You never touch it.”

By allowing one half of the former church to remain unobstructed from floor to ceiling, the perforated-steel bookcase en-sures that shoppers entering the building experience it much like the worshippers of long ago. The structure also acts as a kind of scaffolding, with walkways wrapping each level that put bookworms close enough to scrutinize the colorful vaulted paintings overhead. Though Merkx compares her studio’s intervention to the towering bookcase inside the Maison de Verre, the retail fixtures in the unoccupied portion of the church are more reminiscent of the videogame Tetris. Their interlocking shapes are fabricated from the same laminated wood sheets used to furnish other Selexyz stores designed by the firm, which include the adaptive reuse of an 1885 hotel interior in The Hague and a forthcoming conversion of a 120-year-old post office in Arnhem.

Although Merkx calls the neighboring Kruisherenhotel “a bit overdone,” not everything in Sel­exyz Dominicanen is staid. A dais for coffee-bar patrons, located in the apse of the church, assumes the shape of a crucifix. The combination of less and more earned the project the Netherlands’ 2007 Lensvelt de Architect interior-design prize. The award was announced in November, at about the same time the architects received another piece of good news: they’ve won city approval to tack a gold-clad entry onto the front of the historic building, an extra touch of opulence to appeal to worldly Maastrichters.

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