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Its apt to keep part of St Peter's Seminary as a ruin

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To keep part of St Peter’s Seminary as a ruin is apt for this beautiful but melancholic space, says Rory Olcayto

Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Visitation is essential reading if you’re looking for a fresh perspective on the nature of architectural design. For example, describing the work of one of the lead characters, known only as The Architect, Erpenbeck writes: ‘That’s his profession: planning homes, planning a homeland. Four walls around a block of air, wresting a block of air from amid all that burgeoning, billowing matter with claws of stone, pinning it down. Home. A house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothing.’ Further in, Erpenbeck writes of the architect and his wife and how their ‘shared pleasure at receiving guests had taken shape as a long table in the main room’.

Good, isn’t it? But to describe this novel as architectural in focus is to be too specific: Visitation in fact explores the nature of habitation, and the barely-there traces our short lives leave on the ancient landscape of planet Earth. (The prologue takes us back more than 20,000 years to the glacial activity shaping the land on which the architect’s home sits (a lake near Berlin, incidentally).What it says about architecture is simply this: it is fleeting. Temporal. Small, really.

The novel is worth considering in light of the latest news regarding Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s shattered masterpiece, St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. Last weekend Scottish arts group NVA announced it had formally appointed the team to transform the decrepit woodland structure. London-based Avanti Architects will lead the £7.3 million transformation of the ruined main chapel into a 600-capacity arts venue, with Glasgow firms Erz and NORD also on board.

Like The Architect’s lakeside home in Visitation, the geology upon which the seminary rests was carved, rolled, pressed, riven and scarred by glaciers, grit, wind and rain. It borders the Highland boundary faultline, north of which is a landscape among the oldest in the world. Traces of rock there date back three billion years.

It certainly helps to put the seminary’s lifespan in perspective: it is not yet even 50 years old. Even its celebrated architects, Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, lived far longer lives, although both have since passed away.

The building itself has had distinct uses: as a seminary for table tennis-playing priests (seek out Murray Grigor’s 1972 film Space and Light, which gives a rare glimpse of the building in use), and a drug rehabilitation centre.

Perhaps, though, it’s most important function was to follow: as an inspirational ruin to a generation of Scottish architects, who wondered how this magnificent building had come about in the first place and could then have lain neglected over the years. But they were also drawn by its entropic beauty, the decay, its melancholic fug.

This astonishing temporal juxtaposition, of priests at work and play, and of smashed windows, rotten timbers and crumbling concrete walls, has, incidentally, been captured: by Grigor, no less, in a reworking of his film, for which he re-shot each frame exactly as before and then showed them side by side. It was first screened in 2007, but there are snippets lurking on the web. It is really quite remarkable.

What’s interesting about NVA’s approach is that its proposal embodies this dual state, and furthermore is in the spirit of the countless student projects over the years that used the site as a venue for outlandish design.

Much of the building will remain untouched and, for the first five years of its new life, as the self-styled Invisible College, it will provide a base in which artists, teachers, students and the public can collaborate and enjoy an annual summer festival. It will be both a ruin and an inhabited place where people work and play - a very strange, but very apt, take on mixed-use.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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