Hermitage Academy’s demolition is all the more tragic for the weakness of JM Architects’ replacement, says Rory Olcayto
Hermitage Academy was designed in 1964 by Glasgow architect Baron Bercott & Associates, and built on a large site in the east end of Helensburgh on the Colgrain farmlands. The most recent Pevsner, published in 2000, made no more than a passing reference to it, noting the ‘concrete panelled Hermitage Academy’, is ‘likely to catch the eye’. Yet despite its faults - concrete cancer, cold bridging, and being sited on land housebuilders were keen to develop - this was a school worth looking at some more; an ambitious campus tuned into the town’s modernity. Still, the 1,600-pupil school, which I attended for five years in the 1980s, was demolished in August 2011.
I saw it happen during a visit to see my family last summer. My brother and I decided to photograph it one last time, before Reigarts of Coatbridge turned it to dust. But I’d got the dates wrong and when we got there it was already being smashed up. It was strange to later read comments online revelling in news of the building’s fate, like this one on Knowhere.co.uk, calling for it to be pulled down: ‘I spent six miserable years in that hole, and although I’m now a teacher myself, I wouldn’t piss on Hermitage if it was on fire.’ To me, however, demolitions always feel sad.
It’s worse if you know how thin, how reedy, how cheap the architecture set to replace the condemned building will be. Luckily, in the Gorbals in nearby Glasgow, a clever masterplan by Piers Gough was followed through and built upon and most of the new homes are brick and stone tenements that should last a while at least. Usually, however, the replacement architecture is a disappointment, which some no doubt felt Baron Bercott’s scheme was compared to the Gothic pile that preceded it (on another site), itself demolished in 1977.
But they were wrong. Bercott’s Academy looked to the future: it was modern, civic, open plan and very, very spacious. It had ambition; even the plant rooms - huge concrete triangular wedges sloping upwards - had it. They lay alongside the Links, a stair tower set apart from the four storey main block. Together they looked pretty sculptural.
From the playing fields around it you would see nuclear powered subs gliding by, bound for the naval base at Faslane. The Rosneath TV transmitter, a steel tower made possible by the invention of former resident John Logie Baird, lay just beyond on a peninsula jutting into the Clyde. Elsewhere in the town, the biggest art deco house in Scotland, a Greek Thomson villa, Mackintosh’s Hill house.
My school was urban, like a chunk of city dumped in the country - much like Helensburgh itself with its finely plotted gridiron. It was not alone: the Academy was a less accomplished but equally bold companion for Gillespie Kidd and Coia’s St Peter’s Seminary, just three miles up the road, hiding in the woods. It made Helensburgh feel big, the way out west-end of Glasgow, which again, is what the town actually is.
In this respect Bercott’s Academy was also far more courageous than the JM Architects’ replacement erected alongside it in 2008, more bold in what it said about the townscape it was adding to. JM has done some very good schools - Hillhead Primary in Glasgow - but this isn’t one of them. It takes cues from British roadside architecture instead of the latent urban culture all around it. The result is a giant metal shed with a business park facade. Behind a pointless colonnade, the form could be that of an airport warehouse or even a giant cowshed. But then I’m biased. And sad about the old one.