Festival of Architecture

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2016 is Scotland’s year of Innovation, Architecture and Design.
As part of this year of celebration the Festival of Architecture launched on the 18th March here in Argyll. The region has more than its fair share of stunning buildings, some dating back centuries, but there is an unlikely hero lurking in the woods on the Kilmahew Estate at Cardross.
St Peters Seminary was designed by architects Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein of Glasgow based Gillespie, Kidd & Coia exactly 50 years ago. The design was strongly influenced by Swiss-French architect and planner Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris who was better known as “Le Corbusier”.

Perhaps it was this influence on the design that contributed to its relatively short life as St Peter’s was only occupied for about thirteen years before being abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church. Plagued by a faulty heating system St Peter’s was a cold, draughty and damp place to live in the winter.
Once abandoned decay soon set in, and the surrounding trees and shrubbery entombed the building whilst competing with some unwelcome vandalism and, of course, the graffiti artists.

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My relationship with St Peter’s

I stumbled across St Peter’s Seminary on the internet a few years ago whilst researching abandoned places to photograph (my guilty pleasure) and immediately fell in love with the architecture and the art that adorns a great proportion of its previously stark concrete walls.

I have loved street art for as long as I can remember. I have an admiration for this colourful self-expression by those perceived to be living on the edge of society, sneaking around under the cover of darkness with a bag of paint tins on their back.

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I had always planned to visit St. Peter’s “unofficially” but could never find anyone to accompany me. It’s not one of those places you would explore alone. When I finally found the courage and willing companions the contractors had already moved in and the visit was simply out of the question. I closely followed developments and finally good news came…there were going to be organised tours during March 2016! Hinterland was born.

The Visit

When you have waited so long for something and built it up in your mind’s eye there is always the danger that it will turn out to be a huge disappointment. So here I am at 9pm on a dark, chilly March night in Helensburgh waiting for a shuttle bus to take me to Hinterland, the ambitious project to bring St Peter’s back to life.

Although this ten night, ticket only, event was completely sold out I only truly appreciated the significance of this ruin when I spoke to a young German architect who had travelled all the way from Berlin purely for this spectacle.

Fifteen minutes later I arrived at the Seminary, was handed a rather cool light stick and, heart thumping, I walked with many other “pilgrims” along newly created paths through the woods. Haunting sounds echoed through the trees building up the excitement as I peered through the darkness trying to catch my first glimpse of the brutal yet compelling building that the NVA are gently coaxing back to life.

St Peters Seminary

By clearing away much of the debris that had accumulated over the years, yet leaving the artwork and scars, it makes you feel as if everyone who has ever visited left a little piece of themselves behind and they are calling out to you from the darkest recesses of the building. The young priests, the recovering drug addicts, the homeless people, the curious, the kids playing, the artists are all still there calling out from the shadows. Candles flickered in small graffiti covered alcoves as we edged towards the main chapel the focal point of the tour.

Two shadowy figures walked slowly through the shallow pool occasionally swinging an oversized thurible that hung from the ceiling moving in time to the haunting music and the multi-coloured light show that sends your imagination into overdrive as it illuminates the arches high above.

Who are these two shadowy figures? I never find out but I don’t need to know.

No photography allowed at this point but suffice to say it was an incredible experience. I can understand how a line of tripods would spoil it for those who don’t want to see life through a viewfinder!

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My only complaint was that I wanted to stay longer, much longer. There will be other opportunities I am sure. This is the start of a new era for this impressive building, especially since further funding of £4.2 million has just been announced which will allow the Hinterland folk to continue their fantastic work.

The Future

If I can use this blog post to send a message to the NVA Hinterland team it is this. I hope they continue to handle St Peter’s with great love and care and respect the memory of those that have been before.
The last 50 years is etched into the very fabric of the building and should be left as it is. If the Hinterland experience is anything to go by I am sure it is in safe hands. This is just the beginning…

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Get the book:

This is a historian’s account of the real story of St Peter’s College: an exploration of how one of Scotland’s most singular buildings became one of its most troubled – and most celebrated. With an image essay by NVA Creative Director Angus Farquhar. Across 54 pages of imagery of St Peter’s and the globally publicised ‘Hinterland’ event, Angus Farquhar recounts how his independent arts organisation came to play the key role in the renewal of the buildings.

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