Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Saint Peter`s, Cardross

Hidden in dense woodland on the north bank of the Firth of Clyde, somewhere beyond Dumbarton, is a structure many regard as the finest modern building in Scotland.

The architects were influenced by Le Corbusier’s monastery at La Tourette, having travelled extensively throughout Europe, but also drew on traditional forms and materials associated with Scotland.

Yet today it is a ruin, an abandoned reinforced-concrete shell, stripped of its interior joinery and now obscenely vandalised and desecrated.

In the late 1950s, the firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia was commissioned to design a new Catholic Seminary in the grounds of Kilmahew House, a 19 th century baronial tower house.

Two relatively young architects, Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, were charged with designing it. They had first met as students at Glasgow School of Architecture in the mid 1940s and were a formidable duo.

In 1959, they were to receive their largest and most complex commission, St. Peter’s College, Cardross; a Catholic teaching seminary for 100 students.

Its design had been broadly finalised in 1961 prior to the Second Vatican Council. Archbishop Campbell cut the first sod on the site.

When St. Peter’s received its first students in 1966, it found itself trapped in a time warp, its cellular teaching spaces and individual prayer chapels proving difficult to adapt to the new communal style of teaching. These problems were exacerbated by maintenance and upkeep issues. At its peak, the seminary housed less than half its intended number of students. Those studying at Cardross were forced to contend with frequent floods, as rain poured through the chapel skylight, while a combination of inadequate under-floor heating and extensive glazing ensured that overheating never became an issue.

The college was occupied for just 15 years before its students where transferred elsewhere, leaving Metzstein and Macmillan’s masterpiece to rot. Its trainee priests were briefly replaced by drug addicts in 1983, when the seminary was briefly used as a drug rehabilitation centre. This was abandoned in 1987 due to the deteriorating condition of the buildings. In 1992, St. Peter’s was listed category-A by Historic Scotland, recognised as a site of national and international significance. The following year, the college’s owner, the Archdiocese of Glasgow, submitted an application for its partial demolition, which was subsequently refused. However, Kilmahew house was set alight by vandals in 1995 and demolished shortly after.

Since then, the archdiocese has lodged several planning applications seeking to construct houses in the surrounding greenbelt estate and to stabalise the college as a monumental ruin. In 1999, one such application was refused when it was called-in by the Scottish Executive, who concluded that, “The creation of a monumental ruin does not constitute conservation.”

The walls, though, are plastered not with devotional frescoes, but with graffiti, most of it disrespectful, some of it obscene. Empty cans of Irn-Bru and discarded bottles of Buckfast - a cheap, fortified "tonic" wine - are strewn about.

The World Monuments Fund placed St Peter's College on its register of buildings at risk. Dedicated over the past 40 years to the preservation of endangered cultural sites around the world, the WMF has worked both minor and major miracles, in shoring up and resurrecting important buildings at more than 450 sites in more than 80 countries.

Today, the sites and buildings it is most worried about include Captain Scott's Hut at Cape Evans, Antarctica, the 19th-century city of Fianarantsoa in Madagascar, the 13th-century Epailly Chapel of the Order of the Temple at Courbon in France, the cultural sites of Iraq - all of them - and now, St Peter's College in Cardross.

For more information and images, see The Telegraph: St Peter's prayer for salvation