Triënnale Bruges 2014 - Tadashi Kawamata © Sarah Bauwens

The spirit of place as the key to redevelopment

On the future of religious heritage

Flanders has seven sites on the UNESCO world heritage list. Perhaps the most picturesque among them are the thirteen beguinages, founded from the 13th century onwards for women who wanted to lead a devout life without taking monastic vows. Today, these beguinages are islands of peace in the urban fabric.

Together with the thousands of churches, chapels, monasteries and abbeys, the beguinages are stately witnesses to centuries of religious and community life in Flanders. They mark the landscape, and add aesthetic and mystical qualities to the place where they are located. They act as magnets for visitors in search of beauty, silence, inspiration and spirituality.

Yet, an important question arises around this religious heritage. Now that faith is no longer the primary unifying factor in communities, their original function no longer provides an answer to contemporary societal needs. What, then, can their contribution be to our communities today?

This “repurposing” of religious heritage is a current issue throughout Europe, for which Flanders is seeking answers. That answer is inextricably linked with the “spirit of place” – as UNESCO puts it – which resides in buildings and their grounds, in memories and stories. Embedding this spirit of place into the new purpose – and thus into the future of the building – is crucial. Not only for sake of heritage, but also for all those involved: the owners, the residential community and the visitors.

Kristof Lataire
Sint-Godelieveabdij © Thomas De Boever

St Godelina's Abbey: A brand-new leverage point for conferences

How can we give religious heritage a new purpose that does justice to the spirit of place? Bertrand de Feydeau, who redeveloped the College des Bernardins – a former Cistercian college in Paris, dating from 1248 – expressed the challenge as follows: “We must pass on to future generations something that is in harmony with what was built in the past and, at the same time, corresponds to the needs and wishes of those who will use the building in the future.”

According to Kristof Lataire, Religious Heritage expert at Tourism Flanders, St Godelina’s Abbey in Bruges is a good illustration of this approach.

“St Godelina’s Abbey is located between two large conference venues: the Concertgebouw and the Bruges Meeting & Congress Center. It would not be a good idea, therefore, to turn the abbey into yet another meeting and conference location. On the contrary, its added value lies in supporting both venues in the area by creating a leverage point. For example, the abbey has a beautiful garden, where delegates from the Concertgebouw and the BMCC are welcome during break-outs. In this way, the abbey can even offer a solution for capacity issues.

There are countless other ways to connect with the spirit of place. Take the abbey’s herb and vegetable garden, for example. You can capitalise on this with the menu you serve to your delegates. You can do this in the former abbey church, with a story that harks back to the Franciscan monks’ philosophy of hospitality. In this way, the spirit of place gives your conference extra dimensions in terms of experience and storytelling.

The spirit of place can certainly add significant value to your conference. If you organize, say, a medical conference in a medieval hospital, or a conference on renewable energy in a former coal mine, then your delegates get to experience that extra dimension. By choosing your conference venue according to the theme of your conference, you give your narrative extra meaning and your association or PCO conveys a stronger message.”


The spirit of place gives your conference extra dimensions in terms of experience and storytelling

erfect Binding brochure Mockup

Fancy more inspiration for your conference? Download our free e-books.

Contact Gemmeke De Jongh for more information about your conference in this domain in Flanders

Free inspiration for your next conference

A successful conference is one that inspires. That's why we offer you here tons of inspiration. For a conference in your domain, for your conference in Flanders.