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CARDROSS

BUILDING STUDY

Although the state of St Peter's Seminary, Cardross, has been a scandal for so long, it's still a shock to see the building now.

Designed by Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia (GKC) for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow, the seminary opened in 1966 but closed just 14 years later. Since then it has become steadily more ruinous - the work not just of nature and the elements but of vandals, whose playground it has f lagrantly been. Now, however, with hints that the Church might at last commission a conservation plan for it, there may be glimmers of light on the horizon. In the nick of time, might St Peter's even be restored and reused?

GKC put Scottish architecture in a European league with the churches it built from the mid-1950s to c.1970, mostly in and around Glasgow. Metzstein and MacMillan acknowledged the inuence of post-war Le Corbusier, as his work shed its early Purist clarity and acquired a more primitive, archaic aura, with cosmic imagery, béton brut, and often expressive forms. But their sources were many and various, ranging from medieval Scottish castles to the brick mass of Albi Cathedral.

There is ample testimony to the drama of GKC's buildings and their palpable sense of the spiritual - but testimony to their technical problems too. Given the will, though, were these problems insuperable? The restoration of GKC's St Patrick's, Kilsyth, suggests not (AJ 12.04.01). It seems rather that the Church showed little recognition of the architectural riches it amassed in just a decade, demolishing not just the campanile of St Bride's in East Kilbride but, on the eve of its being listed, one of GKC's best works, St Benedict's, Drumchapel - and failing to find a future for Cardross Seminary.

St Peter's had a warm reception when completed. A piece that appeared both in Concrete Quarterly and Architect & Builder has a real period avour to it, the anonymous author saying: 'The sounds which echo round the vaults vary from the spirituality of evensong to the clamour of young men seeing who can get to the billiard table first. These boys will be as much at home with the transistor as with the rosary - as much at home in a good modern building as in some ancient cloister.'

In Country Life, Archigram's Michael Webb wrote that 'the discrete forms of which the seminary is composed produce a feeling of exhilaration'. It won a 1967 RIBA Architecture Award.

What caused problems for Cardross almost as soon as it was built were the decisions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Architects tend to think of this for its effects on church planning (the centralised altar) but it also had implications for the way that priests were trained. Instead of being isolated in special retreats like St Peter's, they were to be more involved with local communities, and so the seminary lost its raison d'être. Its closure was almost ordained.

Opinions differ as to whether the Church tried hard enough to find new uses for it. Both a police training college and a hotel were mooted but came to nothing, although Kilmahew House - the Victorian Baronial building which GKC's seminary incorporated - served as a drug rehabilitation centre for a while in the mid-1980s (and was later destroyed by fire). In 1990 a Glasgow Institute of Architects newsletter reported that the Archdiocese wanted to demolish the seminary; in 1992 Historic Scotland (HS) listed it Category A.

Since then, the Church has made its proposals for the site in partnership with developer Classical House. The current scheme, submitted to Argyll and Bute Council planners in summer 2004 but still awaiting a decision, sees the construction of 28 new homes in the grounds of the Kilmahew estate, the nearest just 100m or so from St Peter's, and the stripping back and stabilising of the seminary as a manicured ruin. Objectors to the scheme include the Twentieth Century Society and the St Peter's Building Preservation Trust (SPBPT), who have argued that a conservation plan should form the basis of any development proposal and are still quite optimistic about the seminary's reuse.

Ken Crilley, estates director for the Archdiocese, says the Church is 'still in discussion with the relevant statutory bodies' about a possible conservation plan. A spokesman for HS adds: 'We continue to work with the Archdiocese and Argyll and Bute Council to secure the future of the surviving buildings at the seminary, and because of Cardross' importance and the scale of the challenge, we have offered a grant to the Archdiocese for a conservation plan.'

So the protagonists remain guarded. Assuming, though, that the Church does accept the need for a conservation plan (as seems increasingly likely), Crilley says that he would look to HS for advice on who best to undertake it. No doubt the Twentieth Century Society could make suggestions if required.

In the meantime, what do visitors to St Peter's find today?

At first, having parked at the estate's southern entrance, not a sign of its existence. The lodge there is an outpost of the burned Baronial mansion; the seminary is deep in the wooded grounds and hidden by summer foliage until the track's final turn.

Then comes an oblique view of the main block of St Peter's: a honeycomb of vaulted cells (the trainees' bedrooms) above a refectory and chapel, the elevation bringing La Tourette to mind, but the stepped, ziggurat-like section seemingly in tune with the thinking behind such schemes as the Brunswick Centre and Alexandra Road. The cowled, brooding side chapels recall both Ronchamp and Atlantic Wall bunkers of the Second World War - the more so because of their pockmarked and ravaged render, as if they've been shelled.

Only when you're inside the security fence do you start to see the full extent of damage as the rest of the seminary is revealed.

The main block formed a composition around a courtyard with three other buildings - a strongly cantilevered lecture hall and library block to the west and a convent wing (for the nuns who served the community) to the east, which connected to the existing Kilmahew House. Of that mansion, following the fire, just the footings remain, lost in the undergrowth, while the roof of the lecture block has collapsed, as has part of the convent roof.

It's a cross between a tip and a wilderness. There is debris everywhere. Much of the timber that softened the interior of the buildings, complementing the concrete, has been stripped and lies in pieces (many of them charred) on the ground. The banner which SPBPT hung on the main block earlier this year - 'Occupier Wanted: Scotland's Best Building Seeks New Owner' - is spreadeagled there too; someone has sprayed a red line through 'Best' and replaced it with 'Worst'.

Nature runs wild as saplings take root; there's even one on top of the stair tower. The site is a place of honeysuckle, clover and orchids, which, with the multiplication of species through self-seeding, has become rich terrain for botanists.

Climb up the mossy external stairs to the top-most balcony of the main block and the sound of running water from a stream that threads through the estate is supplanted by the sound of breaking glass - you can't walk here without crushing it underfoot; almost none is still in place. From here you see straight through the building, the open cells opposite framing patches of green, while the floor of many of these rooms is missing, exposing the construction of the vaults underneath.

But it's on the ground level of this main block that you get the most powerful experience of Cardross today - in part because of the original conception, in part because of the ruin.

With three tiers of bedrooms stepped-out successively above them, the refectory and chapel were strongly defined spaces and the key communal areas of the seminary. In between them is a narrow, threeflight staircase with most of its treads missing; looking upwards here is one of many Piranesian moments currently on offer at St Peter's.

Across the risers of the steps up to the sanctuary is a painted slogan, 'Dave's Raves'. With the rooflight gone, the granite-block altar is open to the sky, and someone has tried to smash it. Graffiti cover the walls around the ramp curving down to the lower chapels. Algae are adhering to the concrete, giving it a greenish tinge in places.

It's an odd sensation to see a building just 40 years old in this condition. After all, St Peter's wasn't focused on technology and expecting obsolescence, like Team 4's Reliance Controls; it was meant to last. Disregarding the sacrilege and sheer delight in destruction that some people have taken here, it provokes a different response from, say, Tintern Abbey or the Roman Forum, whose age encourages comfortable platitudes about the passing of time. This is far too raw and immediate; fine intentions come to nothing too soon.

But in the March 2006 issue of Prospect, much of which was devoted to Cardross, Richard Williams suggested that 'as a contemporary ruin it is more moving than it would be if fully restored or stabilised. For many, the appeal lies not so much in its architecture, as its marvellous decay'. A few weeks later, Neil Baxter wrote a piece in the Herald (02.05.06) arguing that a consolidated ruin ('a pragmatic vision') was the best option, which the SPBPT was thwarting with its 'impossible dream' of reuse.

No doubt the retention of Cardross as a ruin is one option that a conservation plan would explore. But given all the health-and-safety problems that the seminary poses at present, it won't be easy to make it a meaningful ruin - one that isn't too sanitised or inaccessible.

And despite all the debris and localised collapse, a conservation plan could well reveal a building that is structurally quite sound. Currently, in experiencing the ruin, you certainly still sense the quality of St Peter's when new and can believe that it functioned as a vehicle for religious experience (or a secular, contemplative equivalent). So if restoration does prove feasible, surely any reuse has to be in the spirit of the original? The hotel option would have missed the cues that the architecture gives and trivialised the building.

The essence of St Peter's Seminary, embodied in its architecture and setting, lies in the interplay of the individual, the community, and the cosmos. If a trainee priest was tired of study or billiards (or even the transistor), he could step outside onto a balcony and find the stars overhead or perhaps a storm shaking the nearby trees - that mysterious larger dimension in which St Peter's, and the faith it was meant to foster, existed. It's this fundamental seriousness that reuse should respect - which, of course, is a challenge.

Now that a conservation plan is a distinct possibility, it's worth remembering what has happened with an earlier Modern building, whose neglect and abandonment spurred the founding of Docomomo - Duiker and Bijvoet's Zonnestraal Sanatorium at Hilversum. After many years of uncertainty, much of it has recently been restored, to serve a mix of uses, by Wessel de Jonge, who will soon begin work on its most ruinous pavilion - this too had seemed a hopeless case.

Cordula Zeidler, caseworker for the Twentieth Century Society, believes it shouldn't take too long to prepare a conservation plan for St Peter's, once it has been commissioned.

'There's a lot of material on the seminary and it's easily accessible, ' she says, referring to GKC's archives, which are now at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow. 'It should be possible to draw up a plan in about six weeks.'

For Cardross, what's vital now is momentum. The Church must commit to a conservation plan as quickly as possible and then make its findings the basis for a revised planning application - which in turn must be determined quickly. Given so much past inertia, it's easy to imagine a scenario in which continued damage to the building during further long delays could make the plan's proposals invalid - or supply an alibi for thinking them so.

Next summer The Lighthouse in Glasgow is staging a Gillespie, Kidd & Coia retrospective. Maybe by then, instead of just a catalogue of sorrows, there might even be good news about the practice's noblest work.

For further documentation on St Peter's and updates on progress, visit www. cardross. org

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