The luck has finally run out for one of Scotland’s finest Modernist buildings, says Rory Olcayto
One of Scotland’s finest Modernist buildings, already mostly gone, will soon be gone completely. Demolished, forgotten, the land sold off for housing. If you’re thinking Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s Cardross Seminary, that wounded concrete dragon in the woods, think again. That building has devotees and a rescue plan. But luck has finally run out for this doomed masterpiece.
Some clues? It’s taller than Canary Wharf’s One Canada Square. It is said to contain more than 1.4 million bricks and 20,000 tonnes of concrete. It was designed by RMJM when Robert Matthews was still the boss. And, just like Cardross Seminary, it had a shortened, uneven operational life. But you’ve probably never heard of Inverkip Power Station. Or that only its 778ft chimney, the third tallest in Britain, remains, and that it too will be felled later this month. Damn. Why?
Inverkip Power Station, named after the coastal village on the Firth of Clyde where it stands, was to be Scotland’s first oil-fired complex. Construction began in 1970, but barrel prices rocketed in the oil crisis of 1973 and by the time it was completed in 1976, a year after Matthews died, it had been rendered obsolete. It sprang to life during the miners’ strike in 1984-85, the only time it was at peak capacity, but by 1988 it had all but shut down, mothballed just in case.
Inverkip’s thick, concrete chimney, crowned with four flues (and a fifth you can’t make out) is visible from all around. I could see it from my brother’s bedroom in our Helensburgh home, some 10 miles away despite hills - and Greenock - in the way. Beside the chimney were two huge turbine halls. They looked like giant lanterns glowing on the Clyde coast. At night, with lights left on, their steel frames were visible through the glass walls. Both were demolished in controlled explosions in March this year. (Architect and Strathclyde University tutor David Reat, writing for the 20th Century Society in 2009, suggested an ancestral link with Chipperfield’s glass box for the BBC further up the Clyde. You can see what he means - from photographs at least).
The complex was one of three hydro-electric power stations designed by Matthews and RMJM partner Chris Carter (the others were Cockenzie in East Lothian and Longannet in Fife) in the ’60s and ’70s. Carter went on to design another in Peterhead in 1985 and together they also produced the nuclear power station at Hunterston in Ayrshire in 1967.
Infrastructure design is a Scottish forte. The muscular boilerplate of the Forth Rail Bridge; the surreal romanticism of RMJM’s Falkirk Wheel. The hi-tech functionalism of the North Sea Rigs (and the refineries at Grangemouth); the sleek lines of Glasgow’s urban motorways. In some ways this tradition - which Inverkip Power Station is part of - embodies the Modernist impulse far more convincingly than the housing, schools, and other public buildings, which in Scotland often fail to match up to their counterparts in England (there are few genuinely innovative Modernist public housing projects in Glasgow, for example, which is more than disappointing, given the amount that were built).
And, while Inverkip has more in common with the Falkirk Wheel than Cardross, it is more readily comparable to another underrated Scottish Modernist portfolio: that of Bauhaus exile and chief architect of the National Coal Board in Scotland, Egon Riss. His collieries were optimistic, sculptural, celebratory. Killoch, in particular, is astounding. Many of these buildings have already been demolished; most are under threat. Such buildings however, don’t tickle Historic Scotland’s fancy. Dafties, as they say round Inverkip way.