Reclaiming the ruins of St Peter’s seminary

MARY CULLEN.

For the last eight years the public arts company NVA has been leading efforts to find a new future for St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, which closed in 1980. The creative possibilities of the site were revealed at Hinterland, a ten day event which took place in the run up to Easter.

Hinterland was billed as an opportunity to discover Scotland’s greatest modernist ruin, St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, transformed by light and sound over ten nights in March.  It marked the launch of Scotland’s Festival of Architecture 2016.

The event was a sellout.  From dusk until late, successive groups of people were ferried by bus from nearby Helensburgh to the woods of Kilmahew on the outskirts of Cardross.  Stewards handed out glowing light sticks, and every half hour a long procession set off into the darkness along twisting woodland pathways, with occasional musical notes and backlit branches ramping up the eerie atmosphere.  Glimpses of the massive abandoned building appeared through the trees, partially lit against the dark sky.

The high point of the evening was a mesmerising piece of theatre inside the seminary building, lit in places by flickering candles.  Moving light installations swept across its vast concrete pillars and walls, illuminating the graffiti covered arches of the lower structure and providing glimpses of the soaring shapes above.  Strange faceless figures emerged from the shadows to perform a slow-moving ritual which involved an enormous smoking thurible swinging like a wrecking ball over the flooded floor.  All this was accompanied by a haunting choral soundscape recorded by St Salvator’s Chapel Choir at the University of St Andrews.

What people made of the religious references is anyone’s guess, and the opportunity to discover the ‘great modernist ruin’ was filtered through a lighting system that obscured as much as it revealed of its famous cantilevered structure.  There were no queues to see it when it was a seminary.  But the sense of drama and theatre evoked by the Hinterland experience was true to the original building.  Isi Metzstein, who designed St Peter’s with Andy MacMillan, said church commissions gave them the opportunity to create one-off buildings with an emotional and religious context, and it was here that they did their most innovative work, which reflected the social and liturgical changes of the 1960s.  An article about their work in an edition of Scottish Field in 1967 is headed ‘Building a new Scotland’.  St Peter’s was considered by many as Metzstein and MacMillan’s greatest work.

Its public elements were full of theatre and drama, from the massive scale of the altar wall, which defined the full height of the site, to the cantilevered educational block which seemed to float above the structure and the landmark conical columns which would not have been out of place in a concrete shopping centre.  The procession of celebrants ascended from the robing room to the sanctuary via a long ramp.  There were echoes of monasticism in the building’s hard surfaces and ascetic living arrangements, which were not designed for comfort.  St Peter’s was always seen as a building in which form took precedence over function.

It was one of a series of commissions given to the Glasgow based architectural practice of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia by the Catholic Church in Scotland in the post war years.  Many of the commissioned churches were in new towns and housing schemes.  They included St Paul’s, Glenrothes, the first church designed by Metzstein and MacMillan; St Bride’s, East Kilbride, and St Benedict’s, Drumchapel.  St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross was built for the Archdiocese of Glasgow and completed in 1966 with accommodation for 102 students, just as the number of seminarians began to decline.  It closed in 1980.  It consisted of four connected new buildings, built around an existing 19th century mansion, Kilmahew House.  There was also a convent building and a rooflit kitchen block.  Kilmahew House became for a short time a drugs rehabilitation centre when the seminary closed, after which the site was abandoned and completed vandalised.  Efforts by the Archdiocese to sell it came to nothing.

It will now be closed for two years, while partial restoration begins.  In the long term the plan is to bring the building back into use as a national platform for public art and debate.  Hinterland, the developers suggest, is a place that is otherworldly and different from the day to day.  It lies beyond what is visible and known, and encourages interpretation and exploration.  The site of St Peter’s will only be partially restored, with the chapel being transformed into a 600 capacity creative space.  Some areas will be left as they are, as part of the site’s story of abandonment and dereliction.

The Easter event in the woods evoked the many layers of abandonment and dereliction the site has seen in its beautiful woodland setting; what form the new incarnation takes will be watched with great interest.

Mary Cullen is the editor of Open House.

 

 

 

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