Wandering through the infamous ruins of a building designed by Brutalist architects, built for God and now commandeered by graffiti artists and vandals.
UPDATE March 2016: Hinterland: St Peter’s Seminary ruins revisited. The brutalist religious ruins transformed into a mesmerising sound and light show.
Scotland is littered with the ruins and remains of old castles, industrial heritage and military zones. Connoisseurs and aficionados of such ruins have for some time been exploring and documenting often dangerous and secret sites, and publishing tales of their escapades that are often accompanied by fascinating and beautiful photography. There can be added poignancy when the remains of sites such as hospitals, football stadiums, psychiatric centres or orphanages are still alive and sustained in living memory.
St Peters Seminary: A modernist building for a spiritual purpose
One of Scotland’s more infamous and unusual ruins can be found in beautiful woodlands behind the village of Cardross and overlooking the River Clyde. St Peters Seminary is a hulking, concrete behemoth, a brutalist spaceship launched on the principles of Le Corbusier that crash-landed in an alien world of curving farmland hills when it should have docked in London’s Barbican estate. The seminary surprises at every turn. It is an A-listed building of international significance, acclaimed and awarded for its modern, Brutalist design yet purpose-built for spiritual study and worship. It is frequently cited on chart lists of endangered buildings of architectural interest yet its very design helped sow the seeds of its own descent into ruined abandonment.
Wandering through the woodlands on a beautifully sunny day the seminary is somehow hidden yet looms out of the woods, its main building a five-story concrete ziggurat two hundred feet long. Straight away I encountered the first obstacles to the success of the day in the shape of a metal fence barrier. This ruin was supposed to be an easy walk-in and pick up ten points for the most bungling of ruins amateurs. It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum to carefully planned heists-like raids into semi-abandoned, lightly manned power stations using specialist equipment, and insider knowledge. Surely I couldn’t fail here? Luckily I only had to turn left and walk around a monolithic wall where an entrance was punched through the fence. Unluckily I turned right and flailed about in dense undergrowth for a while.
The entrance led me into an unsettling, shadowy passageway. A foreboding message offered free rape and pointed up a dank debris-strewn stairwell. Another message pointed down into a subterranean dark chamber with the simple promise of doom. At night the seminary would be a creepy place to roam, no doubt used by locals to congregate for drinking parties and feral assignations, capturing anyone foolish enough to wander into their concrete lair and spit-roasting them with a chip fat and Buckie baste. I crept through the dank shadows of the undercroft and paused when I heard the unmistakeable sounds of crunching glass and voices as unseen persons walked the levels above.
The Scottish architectural firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia was commissioned by the Scottish Catholic Church to build the seminary to train priests. The structure, architectural details and motifs of the buildings hark back to Le Corbusier, while its interior wooden panelling was a nod to Charles Rennie Macintosh. The main building is flanked by towering silo-like side-chapels while the side-building housed a library and teaching block. The audacious design of the building was surely destined to be a celebrated success for both religion and architecture. Instead, by the time St Peter’s Seminary was complete in 1966 the purpose of the building was already obsolete with the Church changing its policy to training priests within communities rather than in remote semi-monastic surroundings. Church attendances were falling and fewer men were entering the priesthood. Furthermore from its onset the seminary suffered from maintenance difficulties. By the end of the 1970s the building was in terminal decline with only 20 students and finally in 1980 it closed its doors as a seminary. The purpose-built design of the building has since thwarted subsequent attempts to convert it to a different use. The seminary never reached its capacity of 100 priests.
Sacred to profane: destruction, graffiti and broken glass
Walking through the ruins is walking through an orgy of destruction. Everything is demolished, partially burnt or smashed into pieces. Twisted innards spill down from the ceiling. I step over vertiginous drops through holes successively punched through the ceilings to the ground floor. There are charred wooden panelling, twisted rusting pipes, green mould, stagnant pools of water, staircases going nowhere, a spiralling of space, debris and the musky smell of arsonist soot. The endless crackling of broken glass and tiles underfoot contrasts with the sound of the wind in the trees.
Any clue to its original religious purpose has been almost eroded to nothing, the sacred has long since disappeared under layers of the profane. The walls of the tiny cells for the priests have become gallery walls for often excellent graffiti art, messages, tags, curses and witticisms. Even the large granite altarpiece is now broken. The graffiti art ranges from semi-transparent figures looming out of the concrete to geometric abstractions, surreal monsters to grinning skulls, Gollum to the Incredible Hulk. Occasionally there is a glimpse of something: a small room with a fitting for toilet roll, a slope of twisted rows of metal the remains of seating in a classroom.
In the soft rain water will drip and percolate through hundreds of hole, gaps and glassless windows. In the winter snow will slowly fall through the gaps in the floors onto broken alters and roofless concrete zones where priests once ate, dined and prayed.
The fascination with the ruins lies in its ambiguous questions on the failure of the modernist dream, the fading of old beliefs, the poignancy of doomed optimism and “the sight of the new grown prematurely old”. The architectural writer Frank Arneil Walker wrote that “in little more than a generation, God, Le Corbusier and Scottish architecture have all been mocked”. The seminary is a troubling monument to how post-war modern architecture struggled to be accepted in Britain. It is a visionary folly of religion, the high water mark preceding the roll-back of western Catholicism soon to be gutted by scandal and rotted by indifference. It is ruin porn and a glimpse into a Ballardian post-apocalyptic world. It is an irresistible siren call to arsonists, graffiti artists, vandals, destroyers, drinkers, revellers, wanderers and alternative tourists. It is an alien concrete surprise to those who walk the woods that are slowly spreading and engulfing the site.
One piece of film captures this ambiguity perfectly. Murray Grigor spliced footage from his 1972 film, Space and Light, with footage in its now derelict state to great contrast. Photos from the archive and original footage, if seen after visiting the ruins, jars and surprises with intact glass windows, crosses, candles, wooden panelling and priests walking down clean light corridors.
The ruins resonate and have become the acceptable face of friendly trespassing. The stream of visitors that afternoon chattered and bantered with typical West of Scotland cheer as they wandered around for their own distinct purposes. There are graffiti artists at work, counter-tourists from Holland, two retired couples taking in the sights after afternoon tea in Helensbourough and a drive around the west Dumbartonshire countryside. There was a band using the ruins for a photo shoot for their forthcoming album. A couple of friendly local neds wandered in. A family strolled by with the father proudly boasting to his children how he had been in there, unspoken was the thoughts and one day you too shall have your day in the ruins of St Peter’s Seminary.
The story of this building might not be over as arguments rage over what to do with it, especially as endless attempts to do something are doomed by the sheer monumental and bloody-minded awkwardness of brutalist architecture. There is even a suggestion to preserve it as the first twentieth century ruin.
The ghost of Kilmahew House
There is however one further ghost amongst the ruins, overlooked and forgotten, a footnote to the history of the seminary. It is fraction of a second, a fragment of screen in Grigor’s film. The seminary was originally built around Kilmahew House, a typically handsome mid-19th century baronial Scottish house. It suffered a disastrous fire and had to be demolished in 1995. It leaves nothing more than a footprint, a footnote and photos in the archive.
A useful article with information on future plans (as of April 2013)
You can also download the Kilmahew Audio Drift – a sound work designed to be listened to on a portable MP3 player whilst walking around the former Kilmahew estate.