Defence in the field of Architecture: M.Cs (Archit.) Ulla Rahola

The present study on the renovation of abandoned churches discusses a particular group of Finnish churches and their antiquarian renovation.

M.Cs (Archit.) Ulla Rahola will defend the dissertation Hylkäämisestä huolenpitoon. Suomalaisten autiokirkkojen antikvaariset korjaukset on Friday 31 May 2019.

Opponent: PhD, Prof. Ville Lukkarinen, University of Helsinki 

Kustos: Prof. Pirjo Sanaksenaho

The present study on the renovation of abandoned churches discusses a particular group of Finnish churches and their antiquarian renovation. The major part of the so-called abandoned churches – stone or wood churches of various ages – were taken out of church use already at the end of the 19th century. At that time, the parishes became obliged to heat their churches, while also accommodating a growing church congregation. Many old churches were extended and renovated to meet these new requirements. Those churches that could not be adapted so as to retain heat, that were in difficult to access locations, that were in a poor condition, or could not be enlarged were thus abandoned. Some of the new overly large churches built at that time were then abandoned in the early 20th century, again because of the problem of heating. Later included among the abandoned churches were also other little-used churches situated in old ironworks communities and in the archipelago. The Finnish term autiokirkko (abandoned, redundant or closed church) has been in official use since the 1930s.

Medieval, decorated, abandoned and neglected churches were of particular interest to antiquarian researchers already in the second half of the 19th century. Their interest in the polychromatic murals and sculptures can be seen as the starting point for the founding of the Finnish antiquarian administration. Those participating in the art historical expeditions organised by the Finnish Antiquarian Society at the turn of the 20th century familiarised themselves with several abandoned churches. These sparked an antiquarian interest generally in churches that were no longer in use for services and which were previously known to only a few people. Many of these, however, were demolished due to having been abandoned, and it is indeed almost by chance which abandoned churches have been preserved until the present day.

The research presented in the following study is based on both theory and practice: restoration theories and literature; the extensive archives of the state antiquarian administrator of abandoned churches, namely the Finnish Heritage Agency (formerly called in English The National Board of Antiquities); the annual reports of the Archaeological Commission; newspaper articles and interviews; and above all my own experiences in planning the renovations of abandoned churches. In the study, I present the historical context of the ideologies, values ​​and trends of the era, the development of the antiquarian administration as well as conservation legislation and church protection legislation. Through detailed case studies, I analyse the restoration, conservation and renovation ideals that originated during different time periods, and the establishment of the Finnish terminology, which was based on terms derived from foreign languages.

Through the study of 41 abandoned churches in Finland, I aim to answer the following question: how do the renovations of abandoned churches differ from those carried out in churches still in use? I approach the question through case studies. The chapters discussing the renovation of abandoned churches are divided chronologically into periods spanning one or several decades, in order to facilitate the comparison between the prevailing renovation ideals at different times. A “renovation card” has been compiled for each abandoned church, summarizing the information about its renovation as found mainly in the antiquarian administration’s archives and in published literature. The matrix emerging from the renovation cards shows the special care paid to all medieval stone churches and some of the wooden churches. The care of two churches categorized as abandoned churches located in an open-air museum demonstrates the methods to care for and renovate a building specifically as a museum building.

The common factors between most abandoned churches are that they have retained their original use and their preserved, almost unchanged, simple structures, and that only the necessary renovations that respect the age and characteristics of the building have been carried out. Several of the latter examples are presented in the study at hand, some even in great depth. Details are an essential aspect for the general building conservation carried out in abandoned churches, where even small changes can adversely affect the overall look.

Three distinct time periods in the renovation of abandoned churches can be discerned: 1. the rescue-type renovations at the end of the 19 th and the beginning of the 20th century; 2. the systematic and first antiquarian renovations carried out from the mid-1920s to the 1970s; 3. the conserving renovations that extend until the present day. In the present study, antiquarian renovations are defined as those intended to preserve the historical values ​​of a building carried out under the direction or instructions of the State Archaeological Commission, later the Finnish Heritage Agency. Since in the renovations of the abandoned churches it has not been necessary to consider the requirements set by the use of the building, they reflect at their purest the ideologies, values, model examples, materials, and goals of those carrying out the work during the different time periods.

Abandoned churches represent a building stock that has not required heating. They have survived up to 500 years without heating and with only minor maintenance repairs. This situation may be rapidly changing due to the threats posed by climate change. The present research spans several decades. Unlike 20 years ago, we are now in a situation similar to the era that brought about the abandoned churches – albeit for opposite reasons. The parishes are shrinking and have to carefully plan the use and expensive maintenance of their properties.

Finally, the present study also looks towards the future: it discusses the Church authorities’ and society’s support for redundant buildings and considers the future use of the churches abandoned already long ago. The study is not a manual for the renovator of abandoned churches, but rather highlights various aspects of preservation-type care.


The dissertation notice and the published dissertation are placed for public display at Väre (Otanimementie 14), at least 10 days before the defence date.

Hylkäämisestä huolenpitoon kansi

The dissertation is available for purchase, and as a free PDF download from the Aalto ARTS Books online shop. The downloadable PDF will be made available online one day before the defense.

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