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St Peter’s Seminary – December 2011 – Guest Article

Written by Clare. You can see more of Clare’s photos here:

28th December 2011 marked a birthday treat (!) to St Peter’s seminary. Since reading extensively about St Peter’s and following the various schemes to save it (including a hotel, health spa and private housing), it had become almost infamous in my mind. An excellent lecture the previous month held in the Glasgow Film Theatre (given by Angus Farquar of NVA) spurned me on enough to pester two friends to commit to coming with me on a cold and very windy day in December. After a couple of false starts, we trekked up the path beside Cardross golf cluband towards the seminary. In my mind’s eye, we would be stunned into silence by a large building adorning a hill.

In reality, St Peter’s is well hidden amongst the woodlands and our first glimpse only really came at close range through the security fences.

But for me, it was somehow more impressive that the large concrete
structure could be so well sheltered.

What my first picture doesn’t show is that in front of building there used to be a swimming pool (apparently to symbolise the separation of spiritual life from the secular world). The five cylindrical structures are side chapels and its been suggested that they represent a hand which grasps the building; inside each ‘finger’ is a private contemplation space. There is another ‘hand’ on the opposite side of the building.

My friend found a gap in the fence at the side of the building just past the side tower (known as the ‘sanctuary’) to which the teaching classrooms, which appear to float, are attached.

We made our way over the crypt where students were taught ceremonial duties, and into the main block.

I felt many emotions, fear and anticipation but mainly excitement. The massive five story main block housed students in eight foot wide ‘cells’ on the upper floors with mass being held in a chapel on the ground floor. Its impressive, but badly damaged by water ingress and some vandalism, although the colours of some of the graffiti conspire to create a fitting and at times attractive decoration to the building in its current state. (Much of wood, which would have divided the chapel from the refectory and softened the effect of the concrete, has rotted and is badly damaged or missing.)

The granite altar is the focal point of the central space. Although, a large chunk has been broken off, its still dramatic.

Glasgow School of Art has an image of it when the building was open.

St. Peter's

The central staircase was inaccessible but we were able to climb the exterior concrete staircase to see the upper floors.

Braving the external staircase (it feels solid but we were unsure how it might have decayed over the years; I later read a section of a report by Historic Scotland about concrete cancer within the building) I took some pictures of the convent block, which used to house nuns that taught the students.

It struck me how the nuns’ living and dining rooms, with their sweeping timber roof and small cube windows, are to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp, built 1955.

History of the building and plans for its future

St Peter’s seminary is a grade A listed building, one of only 42 post war grade A listed buildings in Scotland, with a very interesting past. Built in 1958-66/8 and closed 1980, it was designed by well known Scottish architects Gillespie Kidd & Coia. It was built next to Kilmahew house which was temporarily accommodating trainee priests who were then to be housed in this new purpose built seminary. It was never at full capacity and closed in 1980 then being used as a drug rehabilitation centre for short period. Most recent plans to save this building are by NVA and they propose to stabilize it as a ruin and use it for arts practices.

Some photographs of how the building used to look are held in the Glasgow School of Art archives. Murray Grigor’s two films, ‘Space and Light’ , filmed shortly after the building opened, and ‘Space and Light Revisited’, filmed using the same camera angles a few years after the building closed, are definitely worth a look and can be hired through Scottish Screen.

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