Wednesday, January 2, 2013

St Peter's Seminary, Argyll & Bute

Barely two miles from the heart of Cardross, Argyll & Bute, lies the abandoned site of St Peter's Seminary. 

The seminary, once described as being of a "bravura brutalist" and "stunningly imaginative design", was built over a period of five years from 1961-66 on the land of the old Kilmahew Estate which was purchased after the destruction of its predecessor in Bearsden, Glasgow. 

It is said the Archdiocese's decision to purchase Kilmahew and re-develop the site into a seminary reflected its belief that that students for religious office should study, and live, in an isolated location. Historic Scotland experts have, therefore, noted that the seminary "at the time of its completion and original inhabitation...exemplified a specific form of social organism resulting from this religious policy".

Designed by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metztein, and built in the Le Corbusier style, the seminary is one of Scotland's most significant modernist buildings being one of only 42 post-war buildings to gain grade-A listed status north of the border.

St Peter's Seminary - westerly view
Original model
Entry was through a series of discreet and dark tunnels.

These gave way to a staircase leading to the main atrium of the building. The harsh greys of the concrete structure were broken only by the bright colours of the graffiti of past visitors.  

Entrance staircase
Staircase to God
Originally intended to house 100 holy students, St Peter's never reached its full capacity. Between conception in '61 and completion in '66, the number of vocations to the Scottish priesthood had dwindled, and this blow to the seminary's future was compounded by a 1965 declaration by the Vatican to the effect that priests should no longer be trained in isolation, but rather in the communities they were intended to serve.

But, declining demand for God's word was not the only problem that faced the seminary. "In the beginning," as the Holy Book reads, the structure was riddled with problems. From flooding to shoddy workmanship, damp to subsidence, St Peter's had it.

The site was eventually abandoned for religious purposes in 1980, and after a brief four-year spell as a drug rehabilitation centre from 1983, it was boarded up and gated off in 1987 for good. The year of my visit represented the 25th anniversary of its abandonment.

The ascent of the staircase led to the main hall, the end of which hosted a raised platform with the original (though now badly damaged) black marble altar.

Main hall - altar view
From above the altar, looking North East through its heart, the scale and style of the building was laid bare by the concrete shell.

From the altar - North East
The main hall originally contained inward-facing benches, staggered on the steps at the edge of the photograph. A dividing partition broke the main space. The image below shows how the main space would have looked when it was in use.

Original interior
Prayer booths and other contemplation rooms occupied the spaces underneath the arched ceiling around the perimeter of the main hall.

Prayer booths
A diagonal shot of the main building shows the interaction between the different floors.

Access to the upper floors was by the remains of the original staircase. As with its religious counterpart, ascension was difficult, at times slippery; but, peculiar to the Cardross experience, the feeling of suspension when resting in the middle of the ghost-like ramp between floors more than made up for the slim prospect of a grim fall.

Central staircase
Since being abandoned in 1987, St Peter's Seminary has been a popular destination for 'urban explorers', graffiti artists, as well as general vandals.

The graffiti that graced the walls of the interior ranged from the ridiculous to the borderline sublime.

'Beyond Wonderland is Neverland' [PENIS]
Eye of Darkness (+tear)

Walkways ran around the sides of the second and third floors giving access to the individual pods where students once lived.

Adjoining walkways

Small and basic, but with commanding views over the magnificent surroundings of the seminary, the dormitory rooms somewhat epitomised the life of the priest-in-training: devoid of material grandeur, with a view of the glory of god's natural world as their only accessory.

Plush lodgings
'Only love'
The occasional bathroom was interspersed between the students' humble abodes, original tiling intact. 

'How many choirboys...' etc.
Whilst the second and third floors retained much of their original structure (concrete floors included), most of the wood-work had either succumbed to the weather or the vandal's flame.

However, from the upper echelons of the seminary floors, it was difficult not to marvel in the wonder of both the style and structure of the building. The views from the northerly corner of the third floor gave a  brilliant vantage point from which to view what remained of the carcass of the building.

Third floor view

On the garden walls outside of the seminary, the graffiti reverted back to the ridiculous - perhaps even sinister.

Hunt the pig kill the pig #1
Hunt the pig kill the pig #2

On the ground floor pools of water surrounded the internal pillars, reflecting the outside world in - blurring the boundary, as so often happens with abandoned buildings, between inside and out.

Inside in: inside out

A departing shot from the opposite end to the altar provided a final perspective of this tribute to modernist, brutalist architecture, as well as St Peter himself.

'Pleasure scene'

Since 1987, the future of St Peter's Seminary has, ultimately, remained a bleak one. This is not for want of trying, however - plans in 2007 for a hotel on the site were dropped because of the cost of restoration.

In 2011, the Scottish arts group, the NVA, in partnership with Creative Scotland and various other charitable trusts, have been give a two year period to raise £10m to begin the redevelopment of the site. The project began with the publication of To Have and to Hold: Future of a Contested Landscape - a book which charted the history of St Peter's Seminary. Since then, the Scottish Government has made available £500,000 of funding for the restoration of the seminary through a grant to Historic Scotland.

The NVA's aim, and its current plan, is to transform the St Peter's site into an "arts-led public space" that will constitute:

[a] new form of generative public art that develops from a long-term 
creative dialogue with the users and radically accepts the value 
of the building in its current form expanding an 'unfinished' narrative
 that will change over time.


NVA re-development plans
The importance of St Peter's seminary as an embodiment of modernist architectural vision cannot be understated. In 2005, Prospect magazine ranked it as Scotland's most significant post-second world war building, and in the 2008 it was included in the World Monument Funds' list of 100 Most Endangered Sites.

However, as has been noted, there is an intense "mismatch between the significance of the property and its deteriorating and hazardous physical state".

And, whilst the NVA's arts-and-crafts metaphor-coddled proposal may represents a light at the end of the tunnel, this is surely by no means the last chapter in the story of St Peter's Seminary.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Edingham Munitions Factory, Dumfries & Galloway

The 300-acre Edingham munitions complex was built in 1939 after the outbreak of the Second World War. Costing a not unsubstantial £3.5m, it took the man-power of more than 3,000 (mostly Irish) men to reach completion.

The Dumfries-to-Stranraer railway line ran through the site, making it ideally connected for development as well as the manufacture of cordite and nitroglycerine.

The site, comprising of two identical halves - such that if one part was damaged by explosion (accidental or targeted) manufacture would not be disrupted - remains largely intact to this day.  

Many of the free-standing buildings were used for storage. Other buildings, built into the profile of the landscape to lessen the destruction caused by any unintended explosions, were used for mixing and fabrication.

Edingham munitions factory - mixing and fabrication buildings

Dark corridors behind mixing rooms joined up the rabbit-warren of buildings.

Connecting corridors

The shabby, flaking plaster of the mixing rooms' interiors contrasted pleasantly with the geometrical precision of the door frames and latticed window; the cold, autumn light rather clumsily divided by the ragged glass panes.

Mixing room - interior I

Mixing room - interior II

Fabrication room - interior III

Chemical, as well as explosives, storage warehouses were also strategically placed throughout the site.

Chemical Warehouse

Much of the housing that was inhabited by the Irish immigrant community during construction of the site, consisting largely of basic wooden huts, was turned over to house prisoners of war towards the end of the war between 1943-47.

The Irish connection to the site remained visible, with many walls bearing inscriptions of Irish battle cries.

Faugh-a-Ballagh / Brits Out

The buildings, interspersed throughout the sizeable compound, also bore reminders of the climate within which Edingham's workers operated in. The threat of attack by enemy bombing, as well as the ever-present threat of explosions and gas leaks, characterised the day-to-day living of the factory workers' lives.

'Take your gas mask with you'

The long, eery corridors of Edingham signalled the route to the old mess hall. Though the site is only a few miles from nearby Dalbeattie, many of the factory workers lived on-site.

'Empty Corridors'

Staircases always provide a rather nice combination between the known and the unknown. What lies in wait around the corner, or at the top, provides an imaginative feast upon which one's neocortex or thalamus can gorge themselves - the viewer's as well as the explorer's.

Stairway to [              ]

At the top of this particular ascent was the promised mess hall which in many respects bore striking similarities to Detroit's Packard Plant.

Edingham Mess Hall 

Chairs, possibly original, and other kinds of paraphernalia often found strewn across abandoned buildings adorned the mess-hall's ante rooms. In this case, they were lined up with typical military precision. This odd appearance of order in a building so ramshackle and disorderly had a rather pleasing effect:


Whilst this shot provides some much-needed toilet humour:


As with most abandoned buildings, the presence of graffiti was inevitable; however, Edingham's was far from the colourful, artistic illustrations that one might have seen in, say, Glenwood Power Station. Much of it was restricted to the imprints visitors (under whatever guise) felt the need to leave after making their explorations; some of it, however, was curiously sinister. Perhaps Scots are simply less artistic - or much more depressed.

Initials and Swastikas

Whilst Edingham's overground presence is sizeable, the surface tells only half the story. The constant threat of explosion by accident, or (even worse) bombing, and the possibility of chain reactions from the production of nitroglycerine and cordite, meant that the overground rabbit-warren of corridors were complimented by equally labyrinthine subterranean counterparts.

One of the few remaining underground elements to the Edingham compound

After the Second World War, the Admiralty took advantage of Edingham's unique anti-explosion safeguards and used the complex as an explosive storage site, housing everything from dynamite stock to floating mines. However, after the Admiralty had packed up and left in 1960, and the land was sold back to local farmers, the site was effectively consigned to perpetual abandonment. 

Many of the bunkers have since been sealed off, either by obstructing entrances with rubble from those buildings unfortunate enough to be demolished,  or (ironically) implosion by controlled explosion. 

Edingham by air

Since 1960, the Edingham site has ceased to serve any useful purpose other than being used occasionally as a storage facility for everything from furniture to classic cars. Other than a brief ascension to fame in 2008 with a guest appearance in the opening shots of Outpost, the complex's main use to this day remains as an army and police training ground. 

Reminiscent of a bye-gone era, Edingham was the first set of military buildings that I had explored. Though uninteresting in its architectural design or composition, as with all buildings, it had a story to tell - and an interesting one at that. And whilst it may not have been a Steinert Music Hall, nor an Angel Island Quarantine Hospital, it had charm, and its own particular allure. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Gelston Castle, Dumfries & Galloway

I start my UK series with Gelston Castle: a building that I have not only grew up around but also in, it being currently owned by the family of one of my oldest, childhood friends. In many ways, it was Gelston Castle that spurred me into dabbling in photographing abandoned buildings. As a child, it was quite fascinating and playing in its surroundings added a very real "fairytale" dimension to childhood games. So, too, did the additional thrill provided by the menace of a promised billy goat which sentineled the glorious ruin. 

It, therefore, made great sense to me to return and look at Gelston Castle not through the eyes of a child, but through the lens. 

Gelston Castle, South-East Façade, I

Built in (circa.) 1796, Gelston Castle is a fine example of a glorious vanity project typical of Scotland's rising nobility of the time, many of whom had acquired recent, vast wealths in far from reputable trades.

Sir William Douglas, who made much of his wealth through the "American trade" in Virginia, owning plantations, and dabbling in occasional privateering, began to buy up vast amounts of land surrounding where now exists Castle Douglas - modestly named after himself.

The nearby village of Gelston was bought to house estate workers, and after being made a baronet in 1796, Douglas took the adage "every man's home is his castle" quite literally by building his very own.

Gelston Castle, South-East Façade, II

The Adam-style façade is coupled with "anachronistic castellated parapets and round corner towers with arrow slits [which] combine to create an illusion of grandeur befitting the man", as the current owner describes, creating an "uneasy pastiche".

The Adam-esque style has led to the building's design being attributed to Edinburgh architect Richard Crichton, pupil of Robert Adam and notable designer of the Bank of Scotland building in Scotland's Capital which dominates the skyline from its imposing situation on The Mound.  

Whilst dates are difficult to pin down, it is generally thought the building was finished by 1805, leaving Douglas only four years to enjoy his palatial lodgings before his death in 1809. Even in death, however, Douglas could not conceal his vanity. His final act of egoism must be the supercilious mausoleum in which he was buried (having apparently been denied a plot in the local churchyard due to his questionable character), which is described as consisting of a "bizarre mix of styles incorporating neo-classical and Egyptian elements".

Douglas died without an heir, but the Castle passed to his distant relatives and continued to act as a splendid home for the 150-or-so years in which the Castle was inhabited.

This early postcard from Kirkcudbrightshire is one of the few coloured depictions of the Castle before its abandonment.

Postcard of Gelston Castle 

The photograph below shows the Castle in the later stages of its life, circa. 1920 from the front driveway.

View From the Driveway 

After being requisitioned during the Second World War in order to house children evacuated from Glasgow, the Castle was in need of significant renovation and modernisation into the electrical era. Bought by the Galliers-Pratts, the roof was removed in order to avoid rates payments and the building left to rot.

The Castle has remain abandoned to this day, a forlorn reminder of an era-passed.

Front Façade and Remainder of Staircase

Other than half of the front-door and some strapping on the interior walls, little other than the masonry exists. The hard Scottish weather has dealt with most of the finishings, though some original wood work has tenaciously remained affixed.

Turret Window, With Original Woodwork

This shot of the entrance hall shows the relative size of the living space - much smaller than the deceptive façade would suggest.


Only one section of the grand staircase remains, seemingly determined to remain despite the parlous state of the building's structure.

Remainder of Staircase

With the Castle's internal structure consisting of merely brick and rubble walls, the decay of the interior was swift and, ultimately, irrecoverable. Save for a few of the external turrets, the Castle today remains a shell - bereft of hope, and with an uncertain future.

Empty Space

However, the Castle continues to exert an imposing presence from the ground with much, if not all, of the fine sandstone masonry in remainder as a testament to the craftsmanship that carved it.

North-West Façade 

However, the influence of Sir William Douglas, and Gelston Castle in particular, was not limited merely to the South West of Scotland.

When Douglas' niece, Harriet Douglas Cruger, of Jordanville, NY, visited her uncle's Castle in the early part of the 19th Century, she returned to the USA, enchanted, and vowed to build her very own Gelston Castle. And she did just that, completing her very own vanity project in 1836.

Little photographic evidence of Gelston Castle, NY, exists though the image below gives an idea of its somewhat Americanised style.

Home From Home: Harriet Douglas Cruger's Gelston Castle, NY 

After Harriet Douglas Cruger's death, the Castle passed through various hands remaining largely empty during the latter half of the 20th Century. It was eventually bought by the famous cellist Mstislav Rostroprovich in 1979 who, uninterested in restoring the charms of Gelston, built a new home in the Castle's grounds in 1983.

Today, much of the Castle has collapsed, with what remains being beyond repair. Douglas Cruger's dream began and ended much the same way as her uncle's - and despite being over 3,500 miles away both Gelston Castles have, ultimately, shared a similar fate.

A Project in Ruins: from USA to UK

In my first post of the year, and my first post for a year, I return to A Project in Ruins to publish some of the photographs I have taken after my summer "chronicling the rise and fall of American architecture", as Judge Douglas Woodlock was kind enough to describe my project in his generous inscription in a book gifted to me in remembrance of my summer project of 2011.

Undertaking that project confirmed my own belief that the aesthetic pulchritude of the built world extends both to the unpreserved as well as the preserved, and that the beauty of an abandoned building is not merely a difference in degree to its inhabited counterpart, but, rather, of kind.

In my first post in this series, back in Boston, MA, in July of last year, I did not myself attempt to explain the allure of the ruined world.

Thus, I begin my UK endeavour as I began my US one, by recounting the telling words of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre:

Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies 
and their changes, small pieces of history in suspension.

The state of ruin is essentially a temporary situation that happens at 
some point, the volatile result of changes of eras and the fall of empires.
This fragility, the time elapsed but even so running fast, leads us to watch them one very last time : 
being dismayed, or admire, making us wonder about the permanence of things.

Photography appeared to be a modest way 
to keep a little bit of this ephemeral state.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Virginia & West Virginia - 15th August

For Tom and Marcia

Red Barn - Frederick County, VA

This abandoned barn lies just outside the town of Hayfield, Frederick County, VA on the Northwestern Pike (Route 50) just west of Hogue Creek. With its roof in a bad state of disrepair, it is unlikely to last more than a few more winters.

Red Barn I  

Red Barn II

Willa Cather's Birthplace

Willa Cather, the famous American writer, was born in this house on December the 7th 1873. She lived nearby in the Back Creek Valley of Frederick County until she was ten when family moved to Nebraska leaving behind six generations of family history with the area.

Willa Cather's Birth House 

Despite being listed as a Virginia Historic Landmark the house has fallen into a state of sad disrepair since its abandonment 10 years ago.

Broken swings/broken homes

Wooden House - WV

Wooden House, front 

Wooden House, electrics

The Old Catlett House - Catlett Rd., WV

The Old Catlett House was originally built in the 1830s but the original log-cabin structure was repeatedly enlarged throughout the nineteenth century. The house and land were abandoned over 10 years ago until Tom & Marcia Field bought the property last year.


Many of the previous tenants’ possessions remained inside the house. A shotgun blast decorated the upstairs hallway ceiling. Tom jokingly offered me the mirrored picture of two dogs nuzzling each other by moonlight (below photograph, left hand side). Luckily I had the excuse of airport restrictions on my flight home to politely decline the invitation! 

Sitting Room 

Stairway from the Side

 Dining room

Dining room (detail) 

Plush lodgings 

Upstairs, and in addition to the gun-shot to the ceiling, eery sribblings on the wall - no doubt made by the previous inhabitants' children - were scattered over the wallpaper.

Outside, and Tom's property kept giving in the abandoned buildings stake. A solitary red barn, with a poison ivy plant sprouting out from its innards like a scene from Alien sat in the middle of the Old Catlett House's garden.

Red Barn: Take II

Red Barn, interior

White Barn - Smokey Hollow, WV
On the way to our next building we passed an abandoned white barn at the end of a neighbour's driveway, sitting in the middle a recently-harvested West Virginia field. The house that used to sit next to it had been recently bought by a wood merchant and torn down with the hope of finding valuable chestnut in the structure.

Nothing of worth was found, the house was burned, and its accompanying barn left untouched and uninhabited.

'Nothing of Value': Abandoned Barn (White)

Riverside House - Capon Bridge, VW
It was on our way back home that Tom and I stumbled across the last of in my series of buildings from the Virginian and West Virginian countryside. Located on the West side of River Road, just down from Capon Bridge, Riverside House sat proudly on a bend on the road with no signs of life. It seemed only sensible to explore, and access was gained through a broken pane of glass in an exterior door.

Riverside House, front elevation 

Built around 1910-1920 the Riverside House has fared well since it's abandonment, no doubt due to its galvanised roof, and the fact most of its windows remain intact, shielding it from the worst of the North Virginian elements.

Inside the house was relatively clean and empty, with no signs of surreptitious habitation or vandalism.


 Upstairs sitting room

Are Elections Ever Fair? Tiffany's book.