4 October 2015

St Peter’s Seminary – Remains of the Pray

At first sight the ruins pictured here look as if they may have been a housing project of some sort and in a way that would be a correct assumption. Yet the ruins are of St Peter’s Seminary, a Roman Catholic Institution which was finally abandoned in the 1980s.

Situated near Cardross, Argyll and Bute in Scotland the seminary represents a building of world significance architecurally. Yet no one quite seems to know what to do with it and its condition continues to deteriorate day by day.  For those adherents of the brutalist style it must surely be enough to make them weep in to their concrete mixers.
The original purpose of the series of buildings becomes obvious, whether you are a contemporary visitor or arriving as some errant time traveler in 2210.  The chapel remains, exposed to the elements, with the (very modern for its day) altar.  One might wonder, in the future, whether the denziens of the twentieth century still practised human sacrifice - for why else is such a large altar needed?

From the roof of the main building you can see the kitchen block, denuded of its roof and completely bereft of its original function.

The roof of the main block is still in place, but represents a significant danger to those who gain access to it.

The convent section looks like the remains of a Second World War bunker.

The local authorites have wrung their hands over what to do with this remarkable white elephant they have found in their community.  Yet the search for a new owner has left the building the architectural equivalent of the scraggy mutt down the rescue shelter.  Even the posters seeking new owners have become part of the ruin.

Whether or not anything is done, it is a Category A building – which should afford it the highest level of protection for a building of special historic or architectural interest.  Yet its abandonment is complete by both the religious and the secular. The trainee priests have long since departed and the authorities seem at a loss to know what to do with the already crumbling remains.

To discover what led to this sorry state of the building it is necessary to go back to 1946 when a seminary of the same name was destroyed in a fire. A new seminary was needed and although the plans were not finalised and building did not begin until 1961 when they did the building sprang up with remarkable rapidity.

It consisted of professional accommodation for those who would teach which was an older building, Kilmahew House. Around that the main block wrapped like a giant concrete boa constrictor. This consisted of the classrooms, a sanctuary block and the convent block.

The seminary was very much in the style of Le Corbusier and very much part of the modernist, brutalist school. It surprises the sensibilities that the Catholic Church would give the go ahead for something so determinedly progressive but that it exactly what they did. The real question is why?

The architects, Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, firmly believed that the modernist style could complement older Scottish architecture, which had traditionally been rugged in form and made from tough materials designed to resist the Scottish climate.

The opening of St Peters in 1966 went hand in hand with a decline in the number of young people wishing to enter seminary life. It was designed to accommodate over one hundred students but it never in its time reached anything like that number. Add to this the maintenance difficulties that were encountered and the writing was, as it were, already on the wall.

The building closed as a seminary in 1980. It became a drug rehabilitation center later in that decade but you can imagine those sent there responding to their stay in very much the same way that Amy Winehouse did recently. Abandoned in the late 80s, when Kilmahew House was set alight in 1992 it had to be demolished. The rest of the complex began to revert back to nature.

Yet it is still highly regarded. As recently as five years ago the architecture magazine Prospect named it as the greatest building to be built in Scotland since the Second World War. For the casual viewer, that is difficult to see. Yet time is running out for St Peter’s Seminary: if it is left to molder much longer then whatever architectural value it had will disappear, much like the young seminarians.