The brutalist religious ruins transformed into a mesmerising sound and light show.
The visitors were the first part of the show. We were each given a lit staff so that as we followed the path we became a procession of glowing lights zigzagging through the woods. As we walked through canopied tunnels of rhododendron bushes discordant sounds dripped and rolled through the darkness, the woods were enchanted by strange sonic spells. The suspense built as we caught glimpses of pulsing lights from the seminary, a hulking concrete brutalist ruin crash-landed amongst the woodlands.
St Peter’s Seminary: abandoned ruin
St Peter’s Seminary was commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church for the training of priests. It was a doomed building; its audacious purpose-built design and maintenance difficulties coincided with the decline of religion and a policy change by the Church to train priests in communities rather than semi-monastic surroundings. The building declined and in 1980 closed its doors. Attempts to convert the building to other uses failed and it became a magnet for explorers, drinkers, vandals, alternative tourists and graffiti artists. The seminary fascinated with its ambiguous questions on God, religion, architecture and modernism. The architectural writer Frank Arneil Walker wrote that “in little more than a generation, God, Le Corbusier and Scottish architecture have all been mocked”.
It was a visionary folly of religion and a glimpse into a Ballardian post-apocalyptic world. The site was legendary. It was ancient and modern, alien yet familiar. Its architecture was both acclaimed and loathed but it also resonated with many as a battered conduit for the imagination. When I first visited in 2013 there were graffiti artists at work, counter-tourists from Holland, two retired couples out for a drive after enjoying afternoon tea in Helensburgh and a band using the ruins as a photo shoot for their forthcoming album. People cheerfully wandered in and out. A friend once took his daughter so she could practice photography with a new camera.
But the seminary was also an orgy of destruction.
Everything was demolished, partially burnt or smashed into pieces. Twisted innards spill down from the ceiling…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.
Hinterland: light, music and shadowy figures
St Peters has been taken over by the Glasgow-based art organisation NVA, known for their spectacular art installations across urban and natural environments.
As we stood outside the entrance the impact of the cantilevered teaching block rearing up and over the ravine through trees was softened by darkness and light. The entrance was still the same unsettling narrow staircase into a gloomy chamber. Straight away it was apparent how much effort must have been made just to clean out the debris and make the site safe. We walked into another chamber, its brutalist lines glowed with red and graffiti flickering in the candlelight.
We moved up a narrow twisting staircase and into the altar area within the central hall. A kaleidoscope of colours and light rippled and morphed through the cavernous spaces and arches of the hall. In the middle was a pool of dark water, mirroring the lines and curves of the upper levels, and the flickering lines and shapes of lights. An industrial thurible swung over the water, dispensing clouds of dry ice that drifted and dispersed over the still water.
Shadowy figures walked through the gloom. Sometimes they waded through the water to set the thurible swinging, an arc of ritual scattering more dry ice. The figures were faintly sinister as they paced around the columns and shadows, dressed in heavy overalls and hats. Were they Japanese female warriors? Retro-futurist industrial firemen? Sci-fi interlopers conjured up from the psychosis of the abandoned seminar? From another vantage point the figures were both revealed and made more ambiguous as they donned welding masks and enacted obscure rituals emitting sparks and blazes of light through metal grills. High-tech industrial priests? Organ playing masters of ceremony?
Reflections shimmered across concrete walls marked with graffiti, slogans and scrawled tags. Choral music and doom-laden horns and trumpets haunted the ruins. The affect was mesmerising and immersive. Mass rituals played with industry and religion, turning an audience into a congregation absorbed by drama and ceremony. A building of mass afloat and cast in shifting light and song.
As we left the rows of cell-like rooms in the upper levels glowed and pulsed with warm and rich colours. These were once the sleeping quarters of the priests. Rain fell – a magical affect caught in the shafts and pools of lights.
The seminary is moving into a new exciting phase of its history, perhaps finally finding its peace. It will be preserved to work with its state of ruin while being partly restored to become a cultural centre and performance space.
But there will always be a twinge of nostalgic for its wilder days when the broken glass crackled under your feet, it smelt of arson and you wondered what was down the steps into subterranean pitch blackness that not even my friend, a wild man of west Scotland, dared explore on his own.
Images from 2013
St Peter’s Seminary: A new life (includes better photos of the show than mine!)