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Act of faith

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In renovating Gillespie Kidd & Coia's St Patrick's Church in Kilsyth, the Brooke Millar Partnership tried to tackle technical problems without diminishing the building's power

St Patrick's Church sits apart from Kilsyth, a small, unremarkable Scottish town to the north-east of Glasgow.

St Patrick's belongs to an ancient landscape. Shrouded in mist like some massive fortified house, Gillespie Kidd & Coia's church of the late 1950s and early 1960s touches something fundamental.

Peter Zumthor, the celebrated Swiss architect, wants his buildings 'to convey the feeling that the new structure is older than its neighbours, that it has always been in this landscape'. St Patrick's embodies this spirit.

After the Second World War, sections of Glasgow's population were moved from the city to escape the squalor of the centre.

Peripheral estates and satellite towns such as Kilsyth were bolstered by an influx of citizens. The Roman Catholic archdiocese moved that there should be a new church in every enlarged community.

Gillespie Kidd & Coia, under the leadership of Jack Coia but with the design talents of Isi Metztein and Andy McMillan, was commissioned for many of these new buildings, and for a period of 10 years or so from the late 1950s it created a series of remarkable church buildings which stand comparison with anything in the rest of Europe. They have been lauded for the strength of their concept, their conviction, their scale, their materiality and, above all, their sheer presence, both spatially and spiritually. (For a full discussion of Gillespie Kidd & Coia's achievements, see Mac Journal, Issue One, 1994, and Gillespie Kidd & Coia and the Architecture of Postwar Catholicism, RCAHMS, 1997. ) But, to quote Gavin Stamp, reference must be made to the 'dark side of the firm's reputation', and hence to the reason for this article.

Some of its buildings suffered from technical failures and thereafter paid a terrible price: the destruction of St Benedict's in Drumchapel in 1991, days before it was due to be listed; the demolition of the campanile of St Bride's, East Kilbride; and the desertion and ruin of St Peter's College Seminary in Cardross.

I was fortunate enough to visit, as a student, the masterworks of St Bride's and St Peter's in the late 1970s. More than 20 years on, those visits are still clear, and the power of those interiors still haunts.

Metztein, who is attributed with the conceptual design of Kilsyth, cites Scottish medieval castles, with their massively thick inhabited walls, as a key influence. Louis Kahn also refers to those castle plans: his Rochester Unitarian Church dates from the same period as Kilsyth (1959-69).

But while at Rochester the modelling of the exterior brick wall speaks of the interior, at Kilsyth the exterior remains mute. The surprise of the interior, which fully explores the depth and complexity of the brick diaphragm wall, reminds me of Crichton Castle - that medieval ruin which conceals within its crumbling walls an intact and magnificent Renaissance nailhead moulded facade.

Besides the obvious Corbusian references at Kilsyth (the roof of the Supreme Court building at Chandigarh), there is a sense of Nordic romanticism about these buildings.

They bring to mind figures such as Sigurd Lewerentz, with his churches of Saint Mark, Bjorkhagen (1956-60), and St Peter, Klippan (1963-66), along with Lund and Slaato's St Halvard Church of 1958-66.

Like Kahn's Unitarian Church, all explore 'the place apart', to use a phrase of the poet and artist Thomas A Clark (see review, page 48).

All employ materials in a direct and straightforward way, evoking a sense of the essential, the authentic. There is no distinction between an inside and outside material; indeed, each seems to have a premonition of its own ruin, its return to a pure architectural form.

Metztein, in an essay given to his students at the Mackintosh School, talks about plan and section: 'The plan operates in a neutral environment. The only substantial and important constraints are pre-existent, external and non-negotiable, ie movement of the sun on a pragmatic level, the contours, shape and size of the site.'

On the section, however, he continues:

'The plan is dimensionally a function of human mobility, the section is a function of the unvarying measure of man and gravity.

Height is expensive and valuable and is characterised by minimisation when pragmatically determined and maximised when symbolically important.'

Kilsyth's section contains the essential drama of the building, beginning with the copper-clad roof that hangs over the brick diaphragm walls below. This combination of framed structure, in this instance a steel trussed roof, and loadbearing structure, here brick diaphragm walls, was a particular interest of the Gillespie Kidd & Coia atelier.

The section exploits the natural change in level across the site with the original entrance off a paved piazza to the north.

Entry was via a narthex, which housed the mortuary chapel and repository and guild room, and then via a wide stair to the nave and upwards to a gallery that runs the entire length of the nave. It is in the unfolding of this series of spatial experiences that the volume of the building is at last revealed.

At some point following completion, the main entrance to the church was shifted to the south-east porch, providing a level access for the disabled and for funerals.Weddings and special events still recognise the original architectural intentions and use the north-west approach.

The gallery section directs the congregation, some 500-plus in number, to sit within two-thirds of the plan width, while the space extends to the full width above the gallery.

This has the effect of creating a huge volume while still retaining intimacy at floor level.

The ceiling, or rather the soffit, of the visually disengaged roof is a diagonal timber-boarded plane. This timber surface, it is said, was once intended to extend beyond the clerestory and up the sloping fascia. The fascia was eventually designed and clad in copper sheeting. Originally, linear light fittings encircled the wall head, further freeing the roof.

The building fabric suffered water ingress from its earliest days, and years of tentative repairs failed to address the underlying problems. The church was Grade A listed in 1992, and with the emergence of the Heritage Lottery funding mechanism, the means was provided to save the structure.

In 1992 David Millar of the Brooke Millar Partnership, in consultation with Historic Scotland, began eight years of investigation, planning, mock-ups and funding applications that culminated in a six-month construction contract. This has fully and professionally addressed the technical problems, but in some areas at a cost to the strength of the original architecture.

BMP's intentions were clear - and honourable - from the beginning: 'To rectify the technical problems while remaining true to the original design.'

In many areas it has succeeded - notably in that, from the outside, the building appears to be unaffected by its extensive rebuilding and repair, although the renewed hard landscaping to the original north-east piazza, and the new south court and car park, are crudely executed. Concrete paviors substituted for the original clay have a rawness and lack of tactility that will hopefully soften over time.

It is a measure of BMP's success that it is difficult to imagine where the budget of £1.14 million was spent. (The contributors to this sum were the Heritage Lottery fund, Historic Scotland and the archdiocese. ) It is easier to describe each area where BMP's work was concentrated.

A primary focus was the roof. The main problems, which had brought it close to collapse, were centred on the original copper detailing - a flat parapet which allowed water penetration at the standing seams;

copper batten standing seams to the fascia, which were essentially upside down and so allowed further penetration; and rainwater outlets and gutters which were undersized.

These were aggravated by the church's exposed location. BMP devised a new parapet detail: revising joints, increasing gutter sizes and replacing all copper work, including reinstatement of the original copper roof which had been replaced with aluminium sheeting in the 1980s.

The roof downpipes are located within the diaphragm brick walls. These conduits failed, saturating the brickwork both internally and externally. This in turn caused severe efflorescence and encouraged organic growth.

BMP devised a relining of the original pipes coupled to redesigned outlets. New access points were constructed at the base of each downpipe through the existing brickwork. The efflorescence and organic growth were removed from the brickwork, with areas being carefully repointed.

There are many examples of careful detective work throughout the process, including matching and sourcing brickwork for areas of repair and replacement.

Great sensitivity to the original design has also been displayed in BMP's treatment of the fine bronze mullioned windows. These possess a lightness and delicacy in stark contrast to the robustness of the adjacent brickwork. The original section required strengthening and a revised glass specification to reduce heat loss. The original T-section mullion was made of 'Delta' bronze and a further minimal brass section was fixed to the back. The windows were reglazed with 6.4mm laminated E glass.

An energy analysis was carried out in conjunction with EDAS to model general energy use and the proposed new LPHW underfloor system in particular. The original electric underfloor heating failed soon after completion, and a crude gas-fired radiant system was subsequently installed. Given the underfloor heating requirements, and to make cleaning easier, BMP replaced the original pre-cast concrete paving to the nave with thin, light, stone-coloured porcelain tiles.

The original lighting of continuous fluorescent tubes along the wallhead clerestory literally raised the roof, highlighting its edge.

They offered little illumination, however, for the hymn sheets 9m below. Replacement of the tubes was also difficult and infrequent, which often affected the continuity of the lighting. An industrial overhead substitute has now been installed.

An article of this length cannot document all the original intentions, the background to the designs, their subsequent use and misuse, and their rediscovery and renewal. It must be said, however, that the renewal work is best when it is unseen, when the architect has succeeded in not being there. It is when it comes out of the shadows that I have reservations.

'The present age has declared war on shadows - with noise, reason, acid rain, ' writes Thomas A Clark. 'As a fly in a room can intensify the stillness, shadows draped in a corner will blunt the limits to imaginative space.' At St Patrick's, 'reason' has prevailed.

With the original floor slabs now replaced by a smooth, honed, light-coloured surface, and the new industrial lighting, shadows have been banished from corners, from under pews, and from the void above.

The essence of the original interior lay in its acknowledgement of solid and void, dark and light. Simple, natural, elemental materials pervaded the entire composition. There was little concession to comfort, yet they touched a human psyche or need, something closer to beginnings.

The 'ancientness' of the space has been tamed and made acceptable, made comfortable. The building still stands, thank goodness, and still retains an elemental power rare in contemporary Scotland. But while it serves its congregation more effectively than ever, the interior is less robust, less spiritual in an architectural sense.

The architect, specialists, Historic Scotland, the congregation, and notably the parish priest, Father Gerry Hand, have worked with incredible patience and diligence to recover this building - but oh, for a wee bit of poetry!

It is a measure, though, of the enduring effect a piece of real architecture has on a community, even given the many years of trouble, that Father Hand and the diocese hope to create a Gillespie Kidd & Coia interpretation centre in St Patrick's undercroft.


Costs for the final (third) phase of a total development of £1.14 million


Replacement of main roof cladding with copper 96,591

Roofspace walkways and lighting 1,390

Rainwater discharge 4,931

Group element total 102,912


Brickwork repairs 11,553

Concrete repairs 1,530

Replace copper at parapet copes 3,343

Group element total 16,426


Replace copper transomes 5,375

Replace glazing 85,484

Work to glazing to remain 1,985

External doors 7,634

Group element total 100,478


Walls 8,203

Ceilings 120

Sundry other 11,086

Downtakings 529

Group element total 19,938


Heating installation 62,263

Electrical installation 62,929

Lifting and renewing floor for underfloor heating 51,952

BWIC 7,600

Group element total 184,744


Piazza to original design 42,678

New car park 77,104

Group element total 119,782


TOTAL 695,307


ARCHITECT Brooke Millar Partnership: David Millar, Michael Brooke, Andrea Wise

CLIENT Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (Parish priest: Father Gerry Hand)

CLIENT'S AGENT George Berry & Partners: Gerry McQue

QUANTITY SURVEYOR Morham & Brotchie: Alan Harper, Ross Weir

MECHANICAL & ELECTRICAL ENGINEER Forbes Leslie Network: Donald Aiken, Andy Clark

PLANNING SUPERVISOR Kippen Design Services: Leslie McGeoch

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER D Cochrane & Associates: David Cochrane

CONTRACTOR Lilley Construction: Martin Logan, Brian Newgreen, Gerry Wilson

ENERGY SYSTEMS RESEARCH UNIT Scottish Energy Systems Group: Lori McElroy, Nick Kelly

HISTORIC SCOTLAND Bob Hislop, Neil Ross, Donna Stewart, Alan Weddell

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS ceramic tiling Easy Tile; mechanical installation Kentallen Mechanical Service; glazier works Manse Glass; underfloor heating and anhydrite floor screed Invisible Heating Systems; copper work John Fulton; electrical installation W C Martin; concrete repairs Fraser Bruce Group; groundworks Richard Edward & Sons; brick cleaning Surface Protection Systems UK; brass window strengthening E K Metal Fabricators; matwell and ironmongery J O Millar; drainage products Craigton Industries; sand/cement McNair's; lime sand Tarmac; cement Keyline; timber MBT; petrol interceptor Keyline; whinstone Tradstocks; afromosia doors Regency Joinery; toptint concrete Tarmac Northern; bollards Broxap Mawrob; liner pipes PDM Industrial; kerbing-monobloc Keyline; type 1 Patersons; concrete Pioneer; ducting John Davidson; access hatches Jones of Oswestry

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