Brian Ferguson: Putting culture at heart of regeneration

St Peter's Seminary had been abandoned for decades. Picture: Robert Perry
St Peter's Seminary had been abandoned for decades. Picture: Robert Perry
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IT was a bright and blustery spring morning for a trample through an ancient Argyll woodland in search of a mysterious, but largely-forgotten, icon of Scottish architecture. The old St Peter’s Seminary was a place I had often read about, as one of the country’s most neglected and threatened buildings, despite being championed as a modernist masterpiece of international significance, so I jumped at the chance to see around St Peter’s before a long-awaited clean-up began around ten months ago.

It had clearly been abandoned for decades, was almost covered in graffiti and was downright dangerous in places. But it was also obvious how much potential there was.

In the last ten days this vision has truly begun to take shape, with some 7,000 people getting the chance to not only see inside St Peter’s, in its “state of majestic decay”, but also experience the first cultural event there, half a century on from its completion.

Hinterland, the latest large-scale event staged by NVA, had a lot to live up to following previous ambitious spectacles on Arthur’s Seat, in Edinburgh, and up the Old Man of Storr, on the Isle of Skye.

The overwhelmingly glowing response from audiences and critics to Hinterland has given an added impetus to news that the long-term future of St Peter’s has now been secured by £3.8 million worth of backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It would be no surprise if NVA, which is leading the renewal of St Peter’s, is already in discussion with a host of major cultural organisations about future events following its anticipated full reopening in 2018.

But its rebirth should also be providing food for thought elsewhere in Scotland, particularly during the ongoing year-long celebration of architecture and design.

In particular, it should concentrate hearts and minds over what to do with historic buildings which are empty lying empty in almost every town and city in Scotland.

The last week also took me to Dundee, where excitement is mounting over the staging over its first international design festival, more than two years before its V&A museum opens.

May’s four-day festival is to be staged in the West Ward Works, one of the most important centres for book and modern production in 20th century Dundee.

The home of DC Thomson’s annuals for six decades, more than five million titles were produced there each year in its 1960s and 1970s heyday.

Now it will become a showcase for designers, businesses and collectives from Dundee, Scotland and overseas in the first major event to be staged under the banner of its Unesco City of Design status since it was awarded in November 2014.

But DC Thomson, the City of Design team and Dundee’s creative sector all have eyes on a bigger prize, hoping the festival will be the precursor to the building becoming a permanent arts centre - and help to ensure the ongoing cultural renaissance is not just confined to the waterfront.

Anyone seeking further inspiration need only look at the success of the Hippodrome in Bo’ness, which has just been playing host to Scotland’s only silent film festival, and the transformation of Edinburgh’s old vet school into the thriving year-round Summerhall arts centre to see what can be achieved when culture is at the heart of a regeneration vision.