Restoration of St Peter’s Seminary finally starts

Angus Farquhar says the transformation will be similar to the re-invention of Tramway arts centre in Glasgow
Angus Farquhar says the transformation will be similar to the re-invention of Tramway arts centre in Glasgow
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WORK to transform the neglected remains of one of Scotland’s great architectural masterpieces is to begin within days as part of a £7.5 million makeover to turn it into a world-class arts complex.

The former St Peter’s Seminary at Kilmahew, in Argyll, is finally set to get a new lease of life almost 30 years after the building was abandoned and left to suffer neglect and vandalism.

Angus Farquhar of NVA at St Peter's Seminary complex. Picture: Robert Perry

Angus Farquhar of NVA at St Peter's Seminary complex. Picture: Robert Perry

Leaders of a project to save the ill-fated seminary, where Roman Catholic priests were trained in the 1960s and 1970s, will close off the site this week to start a clean-up operation and renovation.

When it fully reopens at the end of 2016, the 50th anniversary of the building’s opening, they hope it will already be on track to become one of the nation’s leading cultural and heritage attractions.

Plans are already emerging for what is widely regarded as the country’s finest “modernist” building to play host to Scotland’s national performing arts companies, pop and rock concerts, visual arts exhibitions and festivals.

It is also hoped the project, which has won backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Creative Scotland and Historic Scotland, will also revive interest in an abandoned country estate which has ruins dating back to the medieval period.

Scotland on Sunday was given an exclusive tour of the 144-acre site – which also includes a ruined 15th-century castle and a Victorian walled garden – at Kilmahew Glen ahead of the huge clean-up operation getting under way. Dozens of contractors will spend eight months removing graffiti and stripping asbestos from the building so it can be opened for a one-off event next spring.

Around 10,000 people will be allowed onto the site for a dramatic night-time event to be staged over several weeks in the spring, which is expected to start a Scottish Government-backed celebration of the nation’s best architecture and design.

The “illuminated public art extravaganza”, which will give the public the first taste of the new-look St Peter’s, is being planned by NVA, the organisation which has led the rescue efforts over the building for the last eight years.

The arts organisation was behind previous large-scale environmental events staged at Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, the Old Man of Storr on Skye and Glen Lyon in Perthshire.

Angus Farquhar, NVA’s creative director, said: “The best way to describe what we plan to do with St Peter’s is to look back at the impact that the Tramway arts centre had when it opened in Glasgow 1990 with the late 20th-century use of an old industrial space.

“It allowed a lot of large-scale work, both national and international, to happen for the first time. I think St Peter’s will take its place. You will see some of the seminal shows in Britain taking place here in the next 20-30 years. We will be inviting some of the best companies in the UK and the world to respond to the building.

“It’s not about getting a touring show and ramming it into an awkward-shaped space. The aim is that it will actually inspire well-established and world-class artists.

“The main high-profile programme will be a four or five- month summer season. But we will also be using it in the winter months for emerging artists and companies to have space to develop their work in a supported environment. It will have a double function.

“What we’re doing with the building is very unusual as we’re taking it back from full ruination to something in between. The building will have a strange skeletal structure gradually going back to how it looked in the 1960s. The north end of the site will remain consolidated, almost like castle battlements, while the south end, where the seminary chapel was, will be fully restored and will have the main 600-­capacity covered auditorium.”

Mike Cantlay, chairman of national tourism agency Visit Scotland, which is involved in the year-long architecture and design celebration, said: “NVA’s inspirational and imaginative plans to partially restore St Peter’s Seminary, a masterpiece of Scottish modernist architecture, present a wonderful story of history, regeneration and transformation, as well as a fantastic opportunity to shine the spotlight on Argyll and Scotland.

“St Peter’s is a building of world significance, so it’s only fitting that such an incredible structure is reinvented from the ruins to enable locals and visitors to experience its grandeur for years to come.”