St. Peter’s Seminary poses fundamental questions about the nature of C20 buildings and their conservation. St. Peter’s is a ruin. And, as with other ruins of recent buildings there is something shocking and at the same time fascinating about this. But not that many buildings of the 1960s are visited by a constant stream of architectural pilgrims, artists, students and the plain curious in the way that St. Peter’s is. People appear to be driven to get to this building. One needs to fight one’s way through the densely overgrown former park of the Kilmahew Estate, and the path is not easy to find from the village of Cardross. But many do find it and when one arrives, the building exerts a power that is gripping.
St. Peter’s had a very short life as a building in the use for which it was designed, namely a seminary for the education of Catholic priests. As such it served only 14 years from its opening in 1966 until 1980. Why was this? Anticipating a growth in population, and therefore in congregation post 1945, the Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow embarked on an ambitious church building programme. The Church commissioned some of the most important new architecture of that period in Britain, much of it designed by Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan of Glasgow architects Gillespie Kidd and Coia (see Mark Baines’ article in this newsletter).
But the Church’s role in society changed. The Archdiocese had misjudged their future prospects, and instead of expanding as the Archdiocese had anticipated, the Church as an institution experienced a decline in fortunes that has continued to the present day. Completed at the height of the Church’s building programme, St. Peter’s highlights the tragedy of this situation.
Designed by Gillespie Kidd and Coia and on a remote site on the North bank of the Clyde outside Glasgow, at Cardross, St. Peter’s was meant to house over one hundred student priests. This number was never reached, and as the years passed student numbers shrank. The problems of maintaining an under-used building, together with its unsuitability as a teaching facility following changes in the culture of the Church after the Second Vatican Council, led to its abandonment. Several attempts to find alternative uses for the building came to nothing.
But a deserted (Grade A) listed building does not necessarily have to be abandoned to an ignominious fate; other C20 examples of similarly large scale have been adapted to new uses. The Hoover Building in Ealing is now a Tesco’s, the SmithKline Beecham factory on Great West Road is currently undergoing conversion into apartments and Bankside Power Station is hugely successful as Tate Modern. But St. Peter’s seems to present specific challenges that make such a resurrection difficult.
Part of the explanation as to why it is such a challenging undertaking to even envisage a new use certainly lies in its location; St Peter’s is remote from large centres of population. What was thought suitable for students of the Word is highly inconvenient for other users. But it is also the character of the fabric that makes it difficult to find a straightforward answer to the vital question of how to bring new use to the building. St. Peter’s is not a shell with a flexible open plan interior, and that differentiates it from most other architecture built at the time.
The main block is designed in section as a matrix of cells defined by structural partitions, enclosing the remarkable chapel and refectory spaces. Several proposals for conversion to a state-of-the-art hotel (needing en suite facilities) or apartments have fallen through because one cannot enlarge these cells due to their structural constraints. If one is to master St. Peter’s one will need a bold and unashamedly self-confident scheme that can work with this extraordinary building. St. Peter’s needs a design proposal that preserves the integrity and strength of the original architecture but also lifts it on to a new life and use.
It is hard to tell how much time is left. Certainly St. Peter’s has stamina. The concrete structural frame appears to be in good shape, yet areas of timber construction are collapsing and vandalism has resulted in widespread destruction that must be stopped today rather than tomorrow if the situation isn’t to get rapidly worse.
The current scheme for the development of the Kilmahew Estate, put together by consultant Classical House for the Archdiocese of Glasgow, has good intentions but is also highly problematic. While aiming to help St. Peter’s with an enabling scheme of 28 detached houses on the grounds of the estate, what is proposed for the Grade A listed seminary has no foundation, neither from a structural nor financial nor philosophical point of view. Less than half a million pounds is proposed to be set aside for conservation of the building; and what is proposed would include the removal of the existing vaults in the main block as well as the remaining roofs with the intention of stabilizing the buildings. None of this is measured against an understanding of the architectural significance of St. Peter’s and the effect that the proposed works would have on its tremendous spatial qualities. No satisfactory condition survey has been carried out that would justify so great an intervention. The proposal is half-hearted and badly researched. Cleaning the building and protecting it against the rough Scottish weather might be the only realistic short-term solution but this needs to be done sensibly, with sufficient funds and a Trust that is willing to act as a custodian for the ruin. Such a Trust exists, the recently constituted St. Peter’s Building Preservation Trust. But in spite of enthusiasm for the future of the building, the Trust has reluctantly withdrawn its initial support of the planning application, because of the failures outlined above.
St. Peter’s is an important building. The C20 Society believes that it may yet have a future, but that this will only come about through a well thought through and inspired proposal for its reuse. This will need money and courage for its realisation.
Also see www.riskybuildings.org.uk
Patrick Duerden is a member of the Society’s casework committee.
Cordula Ziedler and Patrick Duerden