He’s standing in a concrete shell that was a chapel, and a seminary. This is St Peter’s, which lies in the Scottish countryside on the Kilmahew estate, northwest from Glasgow. It was here that the Roman Catholic Church chose to experiment with architectural modernism.
For seven centuries, Scottish aristocrats – Napiers and Burns – held the estate, which overlooks the Clyde. Both families made money in shipping, so the estate was a prime spy site to watch finished ships heading for customers across the world.
A long-forgotten Napier built a tower-house, which is now the estate’s oldest ruin. All that remains is one tower.
‘Look at the brickwork over there.’ Stones trail off into the overgrowth. ‘That’s not a real ruined wall. It was added in the 19th century,’ says Hayden Lorimer, a historical geographer who studies the estate and devised this walk as part of the Discovering Britain series of geographical walks. A fake ruin built on a real ruin has now become an actual ruin. The Burns family designed Kilmahew in the 19th century as a country retreat. Rhododendron ponticum – fast-growing invasive species – was planted across the estate. When it was abandoned in 1984, the plant went wild, forming great tangles that blocked out the sun in the former pleasure garden. Where the rhododendron has been cut back the earth is barren, as if the ground was enchanted so nothing else could grow.
Kilmahew’s is an archaeological garden. What seems like native Scottish countryside opens to Monkey Puzzle trees and a reflecting swan lake. Iron bridges with rose trellises cross the valley. An ornamental Japanese garden appears – if you look long enough, it’s a living magic eye picture.
Kilmahew’s ruin triple echo is St Peter’s seminary. Its rectangular bulk hangs over the valley floor below and there’s now a metal fence around the site. ‘There’s usually a chain round the gate up there, but it never lasts long,’ says Lorimer.
Back in 1966, when the building was completed, it stood next to the 19th century manor house, all clean lines to the old house’s Victorian wrinkles. Gillespie, Kidd and Coia were the preferred architects for the Church in Scotland. The thirties were a busy church-building phase for the firm and when the Church wanted a new seminary in the 1960s, the old firm was called back.
Two young architects were given the job, Andy Macmillan and Isi Metzstein. Macmillan and Metzstein followed Le Corbusier’s European modernist architecture. Corbusier houses were machines for living. Paris, overrun with elaborate 18th and 19th century buildings, needed to be demolished. Corbusier’s spare architecture was to be applied to a building for an institution known for sumptuous buildings. St Peter’s is the anti-Sistine Chapel.
‘There were buckets all over the building. It just wasn’t a practical design for the Scottish climate. It would be great in India or someplace where there’s constant sunshine, but with the rain and the wet in Scotland a flat roof just doesn’t work. So there were lots of leaks when it was in use as a seminary,’ Father Doogan, a former St Peter’s noviciate, recalls in the Discovering Britain guide.
The story goes that there were more buckets than priests. St Peter’s was to have an empty life. Novices might have been damp, but there were double rooms because so few attended the seminary. ‘It meant you could have a living room, which was a real luxury,’ says Lorimer. A film made to celebrate the seminary’s opening has a scene that lingers on the kitchen equipment. Nuns operate great electric mixing machines while a broth stews on a stove. Everything here is very modern, the film says.
What the film also shows is how Macmillan and Metzstein made a stark building spiritual. Corbusier said, ‘Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.’ Where the old church designers used rare blues, reds and gold leaf, Macmillan and Metzstein crafted light through the seminary’s large, plain glass. Light that echoes over the concrete waves on the ceiling. The pair followed Corbusier’s modernism in architecture ethos, but the building is redeemed with light. Metzstein at least claimed to be a ‘lapsed atheist’; though his son wrote in Metzstein’s obituary that this was said in jest, St Peter’s shows it might have been more a humorous truth.
Set off from the chapel are small pods where priests trained to give mass, each priest worked in a cup of natural light. ‘The building’s supports rise up around it like hands,’ says Lorimer. All this ended after fourteen years.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Church tried to open up to the world. Nuns abandoned old headgear, and priests were no longer to be trained far from the congregations they would serve. Mass was said in English not Latin. As people gave up on religion, congregations shrank. Fewer priests were needed.
St Peter’s was a flawed building without a function. It never reached full capacity for trainees and in 1980 the Church closed the building. Windowless, the stripped St Peter’s fell to sleep, the rhododendrons grew up. Outsiders came. Raves and parties were held in the empty chapel and St Peter’s legendary afterlife began. A strange lost sanctuary, the raver’s Brigadoon.
‘A couple of years ago me and some friends heard about a rave that was going on here up at this building. There were a lot of people there – at least 150 – and it was a really nice atmosphere. People had strung up a disco ball… One guy had filled his car with speakers and had driven into the car park – the sound quality was really good, like being at the front row of a rock concert,’ says one St Peter’s party-goer.
‘For a lot of people who come here, this is the edge,’ says Lorimer. For ‘the edge’, St. Peter’s is crowded with sightseers. Before the internet it must have seemed even more mysterious, but St Peter’s reputation is more a state of mind, a place where people can play act at discovery.
Visitors can imagine strange goings on hidden away in the Scottish countryside, but St Peter’s is praised in the architectural press. And worshipped on blogs. And Flickred. And tweeted. And on Radio 4. And BBC Scotland. Never mind ravers; it’s the intellectuals that visitors should look out for.
This is not 24 Hour Party People territory, and when the barmaid describes the estate’s village, Cardross, as the ‘village of the damned’ she only means that the shops in this hospitable, pleasant place close at five, and the nearest Asda is a twenty-five minute drive away.
Still, when standing in St. Peter’s, amid graffitied upside-down crosses – childish attempts at evil – it is possible to feel fear. For the building has been treated roughly, and the violence done – for whatever reasons – causes unease. Urban Splash, a company renowned for turning exhausted modern buildings into flats for hipsters, wanted to convert St Peter’s into a commuter compound. Without enough government support the project collapsed with the property boom.
Nacionale Vita Activa is a Roman saying that means the right to influence public affairs. This is the name, NVA, for the latest organisation to seek to restore St Peter’s. A public arts charity, NVA specialises in whimsical projects that illuminate landscapes. The organisation resurrected Beltane, a Celtic fire festival in the late 1980s, and more recently illuminated extinct volcano Arthur’s Seat with hundreds of runners wearing full-body lightsuits the Edinburgh International Festival.
St Peter’s could become the headquarters for what the NVA calls The Invisible College, a performance space that will retain the building’s history as a ruin while stopping the rot. It will also serve as a lab for biodiversity; already locals are replanting St Peter’s vegetable gardens.
All this needs around £7.5million, which the NVA has been raising since 2010. Last year, the Heritage Lottery fund gave £565,000 to the project. St Peter’s will be reclaimed from the barbarians by religion’s secular replacement: art.
‘This is new. It wasn’t like this when I was here last week,’ says Paul. St Peter’s altar has been cut into six pieces. ‘That takes some serious equipment.’ He points to where the remaining ceiling timbers have been burned. ‘And how would you get up there? It doesn’t seem possible.’
Beneath the broken altar is a metal crucifix that served as a foundation. It’s a decision taken – although Paul could not know it – by the Church. This is custodianship, and not vandalism. The altar is removed, but the cross endures.
This was published in the February 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.