Hannah and I took part in a field day to St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross last Monday. Despite predictions of torrential rain, we set out, anorak clad to see the modernist masterpiece, held up as the finest of its type in Scotland, now in ruins.
The day was organised by Dr Hayden Lorimer and Dr Michael Gallagher, of the University of Glasgow, who are working with the Scottish Arts Charity NVA on a project called the Invisible College. The Invisible College aims to bring together academics, artists and the public in various ways to use the ruins of St Peter’s and the surrounding Kilmahew estate in which it sits, in new creative ways.
We spent some of the day walking around the Victorian-designed Kilmahew estate woodland and gardens (now partly overgrown but being put to use growing potatoes and other vegetables), accompanied by a sound walk put together by Michael Gallagher. This walk combined sounds of the landscape with oral history interviews from different inhabitants of the landscape – from those who served in the big house, to the priests undertaking training in the newly constructed Seminary.
For me the highlight was getting to access the Seminary itself. Donning sensible boots and hard hats, the group spent time wandering inside the building, which is now looking very sad indeed. Built by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, the seminary was completed in 1966 to great acclaim. It was however, the victim of circumstances – geographical and ecumenical. The architectural design and materials did not hold up well to the wet Scottish climate and – as is the case in many narratives of modern buildings – the leaks soon followed. However it was a shift in Vatican policy – from training priests in out of the way locations such as Kilmahew to educating them within the heart of communities – that contributed more significantly to the building’s abandonment. Its use as a Seminary came to an end in 1980 a mere 14 years after it opened.
Since then, it has hosted a drugs rehabilitation centre, ravers and graffiti artists, and suffered significant vandalism and arson, alongside the gradual deterioration of a building no longer maintained.
Although listed Grade A, and on the World Monuments Fund ‘World’s Most Endangered Sites’ the building’s future is unclear. Visiting it provided food for thought, as most modern buildings do not reach this level of ruination whilst remaining standing. Though an atmospheric site in its current state, without significant investment it will rapidly deteriorate further, to the point of no return. Used to visiting architectural gems that are conserved, valued and maintained, St Peter’s Seminary provided a sobering glimpse of a different sort of architectural future of modernist buildings.
More about the project can be found in the book To Have and to Hold: future of a contested landscape (ed. Van Noord, published by NVA Glasgow and Luath Press Edinburgh) which all participants were furnished with at the end of the day. A great souvenir of a fascinating day.
-Ruth (seen exhibiting architectural enthusiasm with Hannah, below)