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.