St Peter's Seminary comes back to life in Hinterland
NVA's Angus Farquhar talks about the ambitious new project, part of Scotland's Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design
Observers with a knowledge of Scotland’s built environment or a taste for off-the-beaten track adventures will be well aware of St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, near Helensburgh. One of the most famous ruins in the British Isles, it was built in the 1960s as a training college for Roman Catholic priests. Designed by modernists Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan of the celebrated Glasgow firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, it’s been lying abandoned in an ever-more advanced state of decrepitude for nearly three decades.
For eight years, Angus Farquhar (creative director of public art organisation NVA) has been intent on returning this iconic but largely unexplored building to our use, taking up the mantle from the late Gareth Hoskins’ original plans for the place. Some years ago NVA toured an exhibition entitled The Invisible College to venues including Glasgow’s Lighthouse which made clear the case for restoration. Not least, this was done through a powerful film reel which showed Murray Grigor’s 1972 Space & Light – a tranquil examination of this space while it was still used by the church – with a shot-for-shot analogue detailing the vandalism, destruction and disappearance of the building over time.
‘This is very much the building’s last chance,’ says Farquhar, talking of NVA’s project. Right now, Hinterland is a ten-day light and sound installation around the seminary’s grounds which will transform it for public viewing as the Festival of Architecture 2016’s opening event in March. But in the long term, the focus is on restoring parts of the building as a multi-purpose arts and performance space. ‘We’ve just spent six months clearing asbestos out of the place, and it showed us just how dangerous it was. Nearly 80 vaults were due to fall this winter and we’ve raised nearly a quarter of a million to arrest that. This gives you an idea of how fragile it is.’
Saving this building, says Farquhar, is not just a simple act of preservation, but about maintaining a physical link to the 20th century and its social changes. ‘Places retain a certain quality and authenticity because they retain the architecture of their period,’ he says. ‘But from about 1920 to 1970, vast parts of that period in terms of its monumental buildings are being destroyed; literally erased. These buildings often haven’t been looked after, but the ideologies which made them have also been called into question. Look at social housing in Britain; it’s seen as failed architecture which didn’t deliver the promised dream of a new life. But I believe that rejecting the architecture as well as the ideology is kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.’
To hear Farquhar speak about the ideology and political intention of a building is fascinating. What disgusts him is not the brutal concrete lines of modernism, but the extravagant, statement-making constructs of the kind that are currently going up across central London. ‘But St Peter’s is the total reverse. All of the beauty, the rigour and the poetry is contained within the building. It’s not a superficial construction; it’s filled with aspiration.’
Next year NVA will celebrate its 25th anniversary, a period of time which has seen it move around Scotland creating short-term, site-specific interventions on the landscape, from The Storr on Skye in 2005, to Half-Life in an Argyll forest alongside the National Theatre of Scotland in 2007, and 2012’s Speed of Light promenade performance across Arthur’s Seat at the Edinburgh International Festival. With Hinterland, Farquhar’s plan is to face the next two and a half decades of NVA’s life in one place, creating an artistic hub and meeting post for the whole country. The birth of Hinterland, he declares boldly, is intended to be as seismic an intervention on the Scottish arts scene as the birth of Tramway in the early 1990s.
‘We want to deliver this as a national platform for public art,’ says Farquhar. ‘The intention is to take a bruised, battered, gloriously monumental building and reuse it in a way which is open, generous and sensitive to the times, and to use what we’ve got more effectively. A lot of what’s interesting right now is happening outside galleries, theatres, and typical 19th-century bourgeois ways of presenting art. That’s what I’d define as public art: something which gets out there and connects with people during their everyday experience in a different way.
‘I don’t want to create peripheral work that sits within a neat little hermetically sealed market for those who have got time to dwell on the finer points of art,’ he continues. ‘As an artist, I want to engage with the horror and complexity of the world as it is now, and create a space for elevated thinking; for thinking beyond what’s going on in the ordinary day-to-day. Because let’s face it, that’s exactly what this space was designed for.’
Hinterland, St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, Fri 18–Sun 27 Mar.