Temple to ruined dreams

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WE like our ruins in Scotland. We slap preservation orders on them, wreath them with Celtic mist, hotly dispute whether or not they should be restored as functioning buildings. But we like them old.

The ruins that loom through the trees of Kilmahew estate, outside Cardross, near Helensburgh, seem to fit the bill - massive and overgrown as any forgotten fairytale castle, and A-listed to boot; but St Peter’s College is less than 40 years old. Regarded by many as an icon of post-war Scottish architecture, the former Roman Catholic seminary opened in 1966, closed just 14 years later.

Somehow, the popular imagination doesn’t get quite so worked up about ruins of buildings that were built to the sound of the Beatles and the Stones on construction workers’ trannies. But so far as the architectural community is concerned, what has happened to St Peter’s, designed by the eminent Glasgow practice of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, is a lingering affront.

Though gutted, vandalised and emblazoned with graffiti, it is still a building of presence. The Beck’s Futures winning artist Toby Paterson has painted it for his new exhibition at Glasgow’s CCA. It will also figure in a TV series in production, Sean Connery’s Scotland, and the current issue of the Scottish architectural magazine, Prospect, features photographs by Dan Dubowitz of the college’s spectacular dereliction - pictures, observes its editorial comment, that "evoke both wonder and despair". Architects, says the magazine’s co-editor, Penny Lewis, are "very frustrated and a bit demoralised, but not about to launch a campaign as things stand, partly because there’s a sense of fatigue with attempts to do something about it in the 1990s".

Lewis reckons the building has reached the stage that it now requires somebody like the Scottish Executive to take it on board, "or a developer with a real passion for the building. It will require a lot of cash to do anything about it now".

Passions are something the building has tended to arouse since it was opened in 1966, when cold and water ingress did not endear it to its residents, and since it was closed as a casualty of Vatican II.

"It’s still viewed as one of the most significant 20th-century Scottish architectural icons of modernism," says John Pelan, director of communications with the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, "and architects feel aggrieved that such an important building has been left to rack and ruin.

"I think that with modern buildings in general, it’s more difficult to engage the public sympathy and support that you’d get for a much older building, but no matter what one’s opinions may be on modern architecture, it’s still a stunning building."

Of course, not everyone agrees. "Best thing to do now is to knock it down," grumbles a shopkeeper in Cardross, while giving directions to the former seminary. "The junkies use it, the vandals have made a mess of it. It’s a real eyesore ... not that anyone can really see it now."

Indeed, you’d need to know exactly where to look, to find where Gillespie Kidd and Coia’s vision squats mouldering amid encroaching woodland. The cantilevered classroom block still juts dramatically out over a hillside, while the main building - its study bedrooms stacked over the refectory and chapel areas, its practice altars in silo-like chambers at the sides - has been stripped of most of its timber and other fittings. Pools of rainwater reflect concrete vaulting, while sunlight pours through the building, illuminating a fine crop of ferns in the sunken seating area; extravagantly colourful graffiti decorates the ramp up to the main altar.

Outside, the 19th-century baronial mansion of Kilmahew, also part of the college, has long been razed to the ground, the rusted hulk of a car crumpled amid its foundations. There is a post-apocalyptic feel to it all, decay hemmed in by rhododendrons and a steel fence; where student priests once sang liturgies, fugitive bird song echoes.

Stepping gingerly through the wreckage of timber partitions and window trims, shards of broken glass and beer cans, all embedded in a matrix of slime, I’m startled by another figure, bearing a camera and tripod, who has clearly come through the same hole in the fence. It’s an architect, who prefers to remain nameless but who has no doubt that this is one of the most significant modern buildings in Britain: "It’s the form of the place that’s just superb," he says as we stand by the great, slabbed altar. "It needs gutted, all the debris cleared out and re-serviced, but it would make a good sculpture gallery or something. Simply fill it with glass to give a sense of enclosure and let the light come through and express it as it is."

Gillespie, Kidd and Coia enjoyed a run of commissions through the Scottish Catholic church’s industrious post-war church-building programme. Their design for the new seminary reflected the influence of Le Corbusier, whose La Tourette convent near Lyon had been completed just a few years before St Peter’s. However, as is not unknown with visionary architecture, it had its problems: during construction the project architects, Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, were so often on-site making adjustments to the design, they became known as "the alter boys". And former students recall it as a draughty building with a persistently leaky roof.

Now retired, MacMillan, who went on to become head of Glasgow’s Mackintosh school of Architecture, is saddened to see the building in such a state and professes astonishment that the Archdiocese of Glasgow, which still owns the building, has never been able to find another use for it and that, "a building that cost 300,000 or something, about the price of a secondary school, was just abandoned, and the big house beside it razed.

"We suggested to them they could use it as a retreat hotel. They just left it, in the hope that somebody would buy it, but I don’t think they marketed it all that aggressively. To use the building now you’d need to spend real money on it. There are all sorts of uses it could be put to but you’ve got to have the will to do it."

Locals still refer to the site as "the Priests". Just back from a meeting with Historic Scotland about the building, Ken Crilly, development director for the Archdiocese of Glasgow, insists the church is not walking away from the problem and has been trying to find a solution for years. He cites a proposal three years ago to create a limited number of houses within the estate and use the money generated to make good the building. "That was approved by Historic Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, the local council and the community, which was going to get a country park out of it, but at the 11th hour the Scottish Executive called it in and said we were breaching green belt regulations.

"We also tried, years ago, to get planning consent to convert it into flats, but the beauty of the building is in its internal space and Historic Scotland said no. We tried an international marketing exercise, but over the years, the place has just deteriorated. However, Argyll and Bute Council have suggested we revisit the site and we’re hoping to put another application in some time this year. "

By the time the college opened, says Crilly, it had become "the wrong building in the wrong place at the wrong time".

During St Peter’s brief heyday, film-maker Murray Grigor made a short documentary, Space and Light, about the college and will feature the ruin in the television series he is currently making with Scotland’s best-known actor-in-exile, under the working title, Sean Connery’s Scotland. "What I’d very much like to do now is revisit the place and make a new film of it, then have the building come back to life."

Grigor regards the present situation as "absolutely tragic. It’s one of the most significant buildings of the 20th century and we’ve got it as a ruin. It would be heroic for someone like Historic Scotland to think about restoring it. It’s interesting that the Catholic church in Scotland was so progressive and produced all these extraordinary buildings." He laughs, recalling the priest who told him that St Peter’s had been built under the influence of "le Courvoisier".

Grigor’s film shows students in cassocks flitting about the building’s cloisters and vaulted spaces, suffused with dramatic light. But, even as the first liturgies drifted between the building’s multiplicity of altars, it was being consigned to the past. By the time St Peter’s opened, Vatican II, with its emphasis on priests training amid real communities rather than in cloistered seclusion, had more or less sealed its fate. The building’s performance didn’t help either. It was rarely more than half occupied, underheated - partly due to oil price increases of the 1970s - and suffered from persistent water penetration, as well as fungus in the classroom block. In 1974, the then rector, Monsignor James McMahon wrote to GKC, complaining that the building was no longer "proof against wind and water" and demanding immediate action.

One lecturer there at the time, Father John Fitzsimmons, has recalled: "Visually, I loved the building. It was brilliant - but utterly useless."

Put it to Andy MacMillan that St Peter’s merits were in form rather than function and he retorts: "Rubbish", pointing out the low number of students that attended the place and arguing that the college didn’t properly heat or maintain the building. "Basically, they didnae clean the gutters and if you don’t clean the gutters in the middle of a wood, you get water ingress.

"Any excuse to get rid of it … But we did tell them on more than one occasion they should clean the gutters and make sure the roses were in the gutters, to keep the leaves from going down the pipe."

In 1997, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland published Cardross Seminary, an account of the background, construction and decline of the building. Today its author, RCAHMS buildings investigator Diane Watters, observes that "the more people have striven to protect St Peter’s, the more people have regarded it as an architectural masterpiece and as modern heritage, the more it has declined."

Watters can’t remember how many meetings she’s had with the Archdiocese and various heritage agencies about possible uses of the building. She rather liked the proposal put forward by the Glasgow developer Classical House, to divide the building into town houses, "but it was too expensive and it’s a very difficult building to adapt". Watters regards the seminary as an important building in Scottish post-war architecture, though not the most important. Conservation does not come under the RCAHM’s remit, but she comments that the original drawings and specifications for St Peter’s are still in existence.

"If you had the money, you could, realistically, rebuild it. Isi and Andy are still about; they could be the consultants. It could be an exciting project. But at the moment, it’s an albatross round the Archdiocese’s neck."

In Prospect, the photographer Dan Dubowitz, who has an interest in derelict sites, remarks that St Peter’s "has become a piece of archaeology quite quickly". Isi Metzstein has been quoted as quite appreciating the idea of "everything being stripped away except the concrete itself - a purely romantic conception of the building as a beautiful ruin".

The way things stand at the moment, that is how this remarkable, contentious building is liable to stay.

St Peter's seminary and other work by Gillespie Kidd and Coia features in New Facade, an exhibition by Toby Paterson, at the CCA, Glasgow, until 25 May