Sunday, 20 March 2016

St Peter's Seminary at Cardross. "A Future Reclaimed"

Hinterland at Cardross. March 2016

Above the town of Cardross on the lower Clyde, hidden among trees, lies the crumbling ruins of one of Scotland's most original and dramatic buildings. Fifty years ago this year, on the Victorian estate of Kilmahew, the foundation stone of St Peter's Seminary was laid. 

Designed by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein of the Glasgow based architectural practice Gillespie, Kidd and Coia the building was modern, experimental and brutalist, after the style of Le Corbusier. It is one of the most important examples of modern Scottish architecture. 

Designed to hold 100 students, it was completed at a time when applicants to the priesthood were falling. Living conditions for those at the seminary were not always easy. There were maintenance problems with the building and difficulty heating it and preventing leaks. Having spent 10 years living in a multi-storey flat where I had ice on the inside of my bedroom window in winter and a draught blowing through a crack in one of our walls from the rubbish chute, this I can empathise with. Despite this, on a warm sunny day, with shadows falling on the concrete walls and light coming through the roof windows onto the alter of the main chapel, it was always a dramatic place to live. 
St Peter's Seminary at Cardross
 It closed in 1980, after only 13 years use as a seminary and was briefly used as a drug rehabilitation centre, which closed in the late 1980s. Most of the recovering drug addicts stayed in the old Kilmahew House, part of the Victorian estate, which was easier to maintain than the seminary building. This building abutted against the new buildings, making a dramatic contrast, but in 1995 it was badly damaged in a fire and had to be demolished.

Since then the building has remained a ruin. Most of the glass and woodwork within has long gone, leaving a crumbling concrete skeleton.

St Peter's Seminary in Cardross, in ruin.
Various plans to re-use the building have came to nothing, the design proving an expensive challenge to work with. However, arts organisation NVA have been working on the site for two years now, clearing debris, decontaminating  it and removing asbestos. Making it safe. Now they are ready for the next phase of their grand plan. This involves consolidating the building, preventing further, irreversible decay and partially restoring the chapel area and landscape to build a 600 capacity "creative space". The estate will also be refashioned, with the walled garden reinstated. The building will still tell the story of its decay and abandonment. Angus Farquhar, creative director of NVA, was a former member of industrial band Test Dept. With the band and with NVA he has experience of putting on innovative and imaginative, site specific public events. To demonstrate the potential of the building they have therefore produced Hinterland for the 2016 Festival of Architecture, an architectural "son et lumière".

It is an ongoing plan, with funds still to be raised, but look at their website for updates and links for donations.

I was lucky enough to get tickets for my family and me for Hinterland and below are some photographs which I took on our walk around the site. This quick review doesn't really convey the visual and physical spectacle which is the building itself. We had the good fortune to arrive in Helensburgh on a glorious, clear frosty evening. As darkness fell we made our way at our allotted time to the coach on the pier which was to take us to the site. There was the excited buzz of travelling to a wedding party on the coach as we made the 15 minute trip. On arrival we were given an illuminated walking stick (which was one of the highlights of the whole event for my daughter) and directed to follow the path through the forest, lights and sounds coming from either sides of us. 

The walk allowed you to tour all around the outside of the building and to snake about inside. The music by Rory Boyle adds to the atmosphere, as an impressive and ever changing light display flutters over the walls of the building. Inside the stars and bright moon are occaisionally seen through roofless gaps in the concrete and a swinging, wrecking ball sized incense ball sways over a pool of rainwater in one hall. Flashes of different layers of graffiti and architectural details catch your eye as you come full circle and return to the coaches. 

It is a building I have been trying to see for a while, and part of the challenge with preserving the building is that its inaccessible site means it is out of sight and slowing disappearing. The work can now begin in earnest to save a modernist masterpiece, which has now been made visible again.  

(Click on pictures below to expand)

Helensburgh at dusk

Clear skies in Helensburgh at dusk

Darkness falls on Helensburgh

Helensburgh Pier and Greenock on the other bank of the Clyde

Entering the building at Hinterland, St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

 Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

Moon over Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross


Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

Illuminated trees 

Occasionally other visitors are glimpsed through the dark,
 here a group stand together in the chapel holding their illuminated sticks

Graffiti inside the building

Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

"Expensive shit" grafffiti by an unknown critic of the building

Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross

Hinterland at St Peter's Seminary, Cardross



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