A while ago, about five and a half years ago, I met this skateboarder who told me he was from Cardross, which is a village about forty minutes outside Glasgow, pretty much the last stop before the train terminates at Helensburgh.
I’d never heard of the place, and the first time we visited, we went to see his parents, but they weren’t in, so we went for a walk up a disused country road, which turned out to lead to the entrance of a twentieth century ruin, St Peter’s Seminary.
We had to fight our way through overgrown rhododendron bushes and trudge through some pretty heavy undergrowth, and then climb over some fences that said DANGER DANGER DANGER and then suddenly we were climbing into a crazy falling-down concrete brutalist building.
It was beautiful and awe-inspiring and kinda sad, and very intriguing and exciting. I was very curious to look around. There were lots of things to see, the skateboarder said.
We walked round into the main hall of the building where there had been an altar and you could see higher up there had been walkways where the trainee priests had had their rooms. You could see where the grand staircase had been, now too dangerous to ascend. We jumped over a gap where a wooden staircase had been and climbed to the second floor up concrete spiral steps and walked along where the balconies had been, peeking into burnt out graffiti-ed bedroom cells, some of which still had coat hooks and sinks in.
From there we climbed over into the lecture hall which was destroyed even more a short time after our visit which had once been supported by an impressive cantilever. Some of the beautiful wooden beams still held and showed where the ceiling had long gone.
(Photos courtesy of Google Image search)
I was blown away by the place, and we visited it several times afterwards with friends, to take photos and look in wonder. Each time we could go to fewer parts of the building because it was becoming more and more dangerous – and depressing. It has been at the mercy of vandals, arsonists, nature, and the elements for over thirty years.
The skateboarder told me it had only been an operational seminary for about a decade, for most of the seventies, and he had been there for mass when he was a little kid. It had fallen into disuse as the Catholic Church realised that training priests in isolation was the wrong way to go, as they should learn in the communities they were going to serve. After that it had had a brief stint as a drug rehab place but it wasn’t really suited to that purpose either, pretty much for the same reasons.
Anyway, this skateboarder turned out to be the guy I was going to stay with forever, so he’s still part of this story. He works in architecture and we’ve been talking quite a bit about St Peters recently because it’s been getting a lot of press because the arts organisation NVA has worked to raise money to make it safe and turn it into a place a lot more more people than intrepid, brave (and stupid) abandoned building hunters would want to visit.
If you follow the chat about St Peter’s, there’s two main trains of thought. One is that the place should be knocked down because it was a disaster, a folly, from the very beginning. And they’re right – it was never really fit for purpose as the Catholic Church changed their training policy before the building was even finished. The rest of this first group really don’t like concrete modernist buildings and want them all destroyed. The second train of thought is that Gillespie Kidd and Coia‘s design was amazing and the naysayers are wrong and that the building must be saved and made into something that will be of use to people, even if that use is as of a site of historic interest that is safe to visit.
We were chatting about this today, and the skateboarder said that although the building was amazing, it was bad architecture because it wasn’t useful. It can’t be defended as a success, it’s a folly, the result of architectural vanity. The architects got it wrong (in conjunction with the client) by putting it miles away from anywhere, making it too beautiful to be comfortable – the trainees apparently didn’t like it all that much, and they had to sit around in the dark as the lighbulbs had to be specially ordered in from Denmark. And so on.
I was thinking this was rather analagous to any kind of architecture – the planning phase of which is essentially strategy. You need to challenge your client brief, identify what the best outcome for their investment is going to be, talk to stakeholders, target audiences and users and find out what they’re comfortable with, and think about the messages you want to convey with your design. And you need to do all that properly and thoroughly before design even begins.
I think it’s daft that we have awards for design and awards for effectiveness in our industry – the design ones should be way more about effectiveness than they are and the effectiveness ones should celebrate the ones that were also fabulous experiences. However, a good experience is likely to be more effective, so effectiveness awards have less to worry about in my opinion, and so should clients who choose agencies that go on about measurement and insight more than those who have stacks of design awards.
Anyway, I do hope that NVA’s endeavours work out well, and they succeed in creating good architecture by making St Peter’s fit for a new purpose, one which delights and mystifies new visitors for generations to come.