View Full Version : Archived: St Peter's Seminary, Cardross - various visits

21-02-2010, 10:02 PM
The high priests of Brutalism, visited both on my own and with a mate who isn't active on any forums, but whose photos are better than any I've seen of the place. However you'll have to put up with mine meantime, until I can convince him to join. :thumb

These photos are from 2010, the next post will be from 2007, and the one after that from 2001-ish once I get them scanned in.



So, did you really visit Cardross at the weekend? Did you breathe in the putrefying atmosphere? Did you brave the slippery concrete steps at the rear of the building, now festooned with pigeon shit, and dead cushie doo's? Did you lean down close to inspect the broken ampoules and syringes littering the floor... and did you trip over a coach party of architectural student photographers, wearily "recording" the place yet again? If you studied architecture in Scotland at any time during the last three decades, the influence of Gillespie Kidd & Coia was unavoidable. Either you were taught or critted by one of the Glasgow-based practice's former staff, or taken to see their buildings. Their work serves two roles - a powerful stylistic influence, and a "how not to" for detailing a building. Although the practice was run by Jack Coia for many years, his successors Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein take much of the credit, perhaps unfairly, for the practice's work in the 1960's and 70's. The "Cult of Andy and Isi" took a real grip of one architecture school, the Macintosh in Glasgow, where MacMillan became professor after the practice was wound up in the 1980's.



Gillespie Kidd & Coia's masterpiece, so the acolytes say, was St Peter's Seminary at Cardross, north of the commuter village on the bank of the Clyde. Folk who studied under Andy or Isi think the building is a work of godlike genius. In fact, "Cardross" as it's often known as, owes a great deal to Le Corbusier's Monastery of Sainte-Marie de La Tourette in France, and many parts of the building design were blatantly ripped off. Balancing this plagiarism, I guess, is the old maxim that if you're going to copy, make sure you copy something good. Today, Cardross stands as a burnt-out shell, yet it undeniably has presence. I've visited it several times - firstly many years ago, when I arrived just after a spring rain shower. Water percolated through the wrecked buildings, dripping onto rotten timber and splashing into dank pools. I wandered around, feeling my way across dodgy floors and slimy concrete. When I left and walked back down the overgrown drive, I imagined that the condition of Cardross couldn't get any worse: I was wrong.



Cardross estate was bought by the Catholic church in 1948 - they planned to build a new seminary to replace a previous one in Bearsden which burnt down. Neds? Ten years later, the Archbishop commissioned Gillespie Kidd & Coia to design the new building - and they reached for their copy of Le Corbusier's Oeuvre Complete to seek inspiration. Cardross consisted of four buildings - the main block, which is a hollowed-out ziggurat with terraces of cells for trainee priests; at right angles to it lies the teaching block, which cantilevers dramatically out over a ravine; in the angle made by the two buildings was the original Kilrnahew House, now completely gone; and lastly the small, freestanding convent block. The seminary was built by James Laidlaw & Sons, who began work in June 1962 and had completed enough of the building for it to open on St Andrew's Day in 1966. Not long afterwards, the film maker Murray Grigor made his famous "Space and Light" film which highlights the tragedy of what has been lost - frocked priests marching up the ramp behind the altar, close-ups of crucifixes, and wide shots taking in the brightness of the main spaces. Even with a distracting soundtrack from 1972, it is impressive.



As it was, the building became redundant soon after it was finished, because the Second Vatican Council, convened in 1961, changed the rules. The new Pope, Paul VI, decided that priests should be trained at universities rather than being cloistered away in seminaries: instead, he wanted them to mix with laypeople and take part in the "real world". Vatican II made Cardross obsolete, the priests moved out in 1980, and the building began its slow decline. The building's fundamental problem is with construction detailing. Cardross is riddled with technical weaknesses (cold bridges, parapet gutters, sound paths) and these made it difficult and expensive to maintain. The problem is partly due to the novelty of new building techniques, partly the architects' continual changes while the project was under construction (they were nick-named the "Alter Boys"), but it also reputedly stems from a lack of maintenance. As a result, Cardross stands today as a sculptural ruin with failed waterproofing, rotten timber, stained concrete and spalling render which has peeled off the brickwork in great chunks.



There have been numerous schemes to rescue Cardross, firstly by using it as a heroin rehab centre between 1983 and 1987, after which it lay empty, and its destruction at the hand of the N.E.D.S. began: neds are pale wee chaps in Kappa tracksuits, their breeks tucked into their socks. They made rapid progress after Kilmahew House (an older building which was incorporated into the project) was burned down in 1994. They still turn up here, wearing their brightly-coloured shoplifting uniforms, even though there's nothing much left to burn or steal. The Catholic church still own Cardross, but have tried to offload it several times: their developers, Classical House, put forward several schemes to restore between 1993 and 2005, as did the St Peter's Building Preservation Trust who were active around 2006-8. Now another set of developers, Urban Splash (who restored the derelict Midland Grand hotel at Morecambe) have plans on the table. The problem that confounds them all is that Cardross is A-listed, and that means nothing substantial can be changed. Ironically, Isi Metzstein conceded in an interview that he once envisaged the building as a ruin, stripped back to its concrete shell - so perhaps it has arrived at its pre-ordained fate...



While the developers argue about the detail and cost of full-blown restoration with Historic Scotland (who do the listing), the building's condition gets worse and worse. Cardross has become the most celebrated (or mourned) derelict building in Scotland, with the possible exception of Mavisbank House. Gavin Stamp, the architectural historian, wrote: "The abandonment of so much built capital, let alone of such an astonishingly sophisticated and powerful realisation of the ideas which had inspired Glasgow's most celebrated modern firm of architects, really was an avoidable tragedy. The problem, perhaps, is not Gillespie Kidd and Coia but Scotland." It's worth noting that several other GK&C buildings have suffered the same fate - St Andrew's College in Bearsden, and a church in Drumchapel which was hurriedly demolished a few days before it could be listed. In a case like this, listing is an impediment to saving the architecture, and it also comes far too late to make a difference.



You used to go to Cardross to stand in front of the altar pondering mortality (reminded of Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going"): but in the last year, the slab of silver granite has been smashed. Mindless vandalism. So Cardross continues to deteriorate, and the building has gradually been overlain by graffiti of various sorts. One famous piece was the stencil by a student from Glasgow art school - "Machinery is aggressive. The weaver becomes a web, the machinist a machine", which was coined by the art critic Herbert Read. Even that graffiti itself has been vandalised, and in the ultimate gesture of irony, someone has finally fixed the hole in the fence – so I climbed over the palisade, just as I had to do in 2003.

21-02-2010, 10:15 PM
Thanks Pix, it's worth seeing sooner rather than later as there's a chance something will happen with the restoration this year. Still a small chance though… OK, so here are some shots from the spring of 2007, before the altar stone was damaged, while the sanctuary roof was still partly in place.











I think my photos from 2001-ish are in the infamous shoebox which contains all sorts of stuff I took photos of before the era of U.E. forums: I'll try to dig them out later in the week. :thumb