Glasgow based public art charity NVA’s publication, To Have and to Hold, Future of a Contested Landscape, charts the story of St. Peter’s Seminary and Kilmahew Woodland in Cardross. Designed by Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, St Peter’s Seminary is widely regarded as one of the most significant Modernist buildings in Europe. However only 45 years after it was opened, the structure stands as a decaying shell, the victim of a policy change by the Catholic Church in the 1960s.
For the past two and a half years NVA have been working with a number of partners to develop a plan for the Kilmahew woodland which includes the former St Peter’s Seminary – a building of such importance that it was recently added to the the ‘World Monuments Fund’ list of the ‘World’s 100 Most Endangered Sites’.
‘To Have and To Hold’, which was recently launched at the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival, includes contributions from academics, artists, writers, architects and landscape architects who have collated their thoughts, opinions, options and possibilities in a discursive set of texts that raise questions about: history and heritage; conservation and preservation; and ownership and decision making.
Below is an excerpt from ‘To Have and To Hold’ featuring a conversation in June 2011 between Angus Farquhar of NVA and writer, teacher and architect Ed Hollis.
Ed Hollis: Maybe we can start by summarising where things are now. What has happened since the debate in Venice?
Angus Farquhar: We’ve bought the site and the buildings; our offer was accepted and we have a two-year period in which to further develop our plans. We are halfway through the articulation of a masterplan with Avanti Architects and ERZ Landscape Architects, and our approach is to develop a number of phases. Depending on what funding is raised we can decide what to do when. In terms of usage, we are looking at the minimum we require as a shelter, for basic facilities and power, to allow a successful start to a programme, so we don’t have to wait for phase two. There is a set of operational decisions to be made; we know that for the site to be safe people have to stay there, so that defines the need for sleeping accommodation. To reverse nearly thirty years of abandonment you have to people that landscape, with a gradual process of realisation that it has become worth keeping.
EH: It is quite a big first move, to have people sleeping there, inhabiting the site.
AF: We want to have a base there, a place to bring people, where we can hold meetings, host crew, deal with site management, so that defines the function of some of the building. The most important decision as a matter of choice is that we want to counterbalance the consolidated form by a partially or fully restored form in the buildings. That juxtaposition is quite harsh, so what is clearly temporary (‘unsightly aid’) is treated as something that can be designed to be actively seen for the first few years of its life. Particularly in the main block, the mix of quite a raw treatment of the refectory space against a restored chapel is the route that we are going down, so that we have a fully functioning flexible wind- and watertight space that is surprisingly beautiful in terms of its interior compared to its exterior. The refectory should remain open to the elements. We neither re-glaze nor seal; we leave it open and keep the trees naturally coming up to it.
EH: So it becomes a building that starts out fully dressed and ends up naked and fades away.
AF: It’s to acknowledge the value of the process of ruination and to allow that quality to permeate it, so you are always aware of the restored element within something that is already partially lost. We are not setting out to make a perfect vision of the future in architectural terms, or in the way we set to critique the notion of a learning centre. It’s been one of the criticisms of early stages of modernism; so we accept failure as a valid comment.
EH: I’m interested in addressing the idea of restoring one part and conserving the other. This taps into a whole nineteenth-century idea that the two don’t meet. It is an interesting idea to put both together in this broken machine. I find the most provocative bit the restoration. Are you restoring it as a chapel?
AF: The chapel is deconsecrated, but there is no doubt that the main internal spaces carry residues of their prior use. That’s definitely a question to be addressed; for example, where there was an organ loft, we could put performance systems in. That represents a pragmatic use of space to fulfil the function we now require. There is a question about the sanctuary space, which is often seen as shrouded, or screened from outside. You can’t see out, apart from upwards through the roof space above the altar, through which light was modified by a strange ziggurat rooflight. To make a completely secluded space is less relevant to us, as we won’t be performing Mass, so maybe it will be interesting to have greater permeability and get a sense of self in the context of a wider skeletal structure. That raises architectural questions about whether we are willing to violate the purity of a restored form, and we are!
EH: That is always the issue of restoration; it implies there was an original of something designed in one go. The idea of partial restoration allows the question to be ventilated.
AF: Our aim is to make a workable space with a remarkable atmosphere and history; for it to also have a remarkable future it needs to be usable. From the beginning I felt it should not be something set in one period. It should be a space where, if appropriate, a contemporary architectural intervention can happen, so the interior space finds its own balance and sense of complexity.
EH: A schoolboy question is: what happens to the altar in a place like this?
AF: One of the strongest images that implies desecration is the broken altar. It feels like it is the result of an intentional act. In knitting that altar back together, we feel it is just as important to show the stitches, not to smooth it over, but to show what it has gone through. And it should stay: to take it out would create a strange emptiness. While there isn’t an overt spiritual agenda, we could position the chapel as a secular or multi-faith resource, where the solemnity and quality of silence within it could be used to help remember someone’s life, for instance; there are echoes of function that we will pick up and build on without mimicry.
EH: That brings us back to the idea that the building started like a machine that had specific parts doing specific things. As a ruin it has ceased to be that, but a ruin’s meaning or reading isn’t completely open-ended; it tells you things about what it used to be. It’s a question of getting the building to tell you what it wants to be, but not instantly restoring it back to machine …
AF: The problem with St Peter’s is that it was not necessarily loved. There is no doubt that there were days and Masses in the sanctuary that are still indelibly imprinted in people’s memories after thirty or forty years. That is one thing I want to find out: at a point in history, when some of the social hierarchies were beginning to break down after World War II, how could a building this ambitious and optimistic about the future be built? When we say we don’t live in times like that, weren’t they just as insecure? Isn’t that just an illusion we project onto modernism, that it somehow had a sense of the future we don’t feel anymore?
EH: It is amazing when you think of the pessimistic optimism of rebuilding the world that was bombed and devastated. St Peter’s was borne out of the same notion of necessity; not as a self-indulgent private artwork. Training priests to go into the community is based on the notion of it being a model community itself. One of the strange things is that [at that time] people thought on a much larger scale.
AF: The buildings with vast interior scales now tend to be museums or arts centres, like Tate Modern, which reuse industrial cathedrals, which is a clear sign of a changing of the religious or work focus to cultural functions, and we are continuing in that vein. I don’t sense a great deal of optimism about the future now. In the past decades there have been massive pockets of wealth creation, but that is not now feeding out into the wider society. That is why I liked the presentation on Lina Bo Bardi’s work in Venice, and her idea of humble architecture, which seems appropriate to our time. Part of an incremental development through not having money to throw at a problem and make a hasty solution. If you have a fast solution you may rue the fact that you didn’t take more time.
EH: Yes, you end up creating yourself a white elephant. Does the whole project feel different now that it’s real? Do you find in a sense that the open- ended and iterative approach, allowing the project to grow, bit by bit, suddenly feels like a very different idea?
AF: We are now in a very practical phase and ideas have to stand up against these practicalities. Many public-funded solutions want outcomes with such sparkling clarity that some of the more open-ended approaches can seem vague rather than the best way to the right answer. It simply means you have to engage in this long, careful, pragmatic process, as you’re talking about public money. Issues must be raised and answered effectively; there is a need to somehow ‘project’ a finished article.
EH: It is the process that makes it special. The way you describe the Commission Plan is like a process rather than a product.
AF: Yes, how you ask people to think about it along the way is important. When the masterplan is completed we will invite other people into a kind of peer review. It will take a temperature reading and ensure a conversation continues all the way through.
EH: It is interesting that you talk of peer review, rather than consultation. For a project like this, its critical reception is part of its job.
AF: Absolutely. The idea of it being alive now and out there, it already represents something that has a value, two years before a development does or doesn’t take place. It’s very important to keep that moving and to feed that. Rather than just treat it as a formal planning period and say, ‘Consultation: done that’.
EF: This notion of criticism and critical reception is interesting. Walking on my way here I saw a poster that invites people to visit Glasgow and see its fine buildings. Twelve buildings were represented as paperweights drawn as objects, completely uncritically. They were a) not buildings in action, just paperweights and objects, and b) there was no criticism of their worth. It was more a checklist of Foster, Hadid etc., a collection; weird, as it has no relationship to how we use buildings in real life.
AF: When St Peter’s was designed it was as a walk-through sculpture, as a series of activated dramatic spaces linked directly to how the seminarians would move through the rooms leading to Mass, the ritual centre of the seminary. That feels important to what we do and how we follow in that tradition; the idea of peripatetic learning is inherently, in newer language, all about embodiment and immersion …Paul Stallan has said that architecture is an experience of form and our approach is about using architecture as a form of experience. It is about the act of thinking in spaces and how different spaces modulate your thinking, pull you in, or alienate and set up perceptual questions that are not easily answered.
EH: John Summerson has written a lovely essay about ruins, stating that what is so lovely about them is that there are two types of ruins: one is not worth having, like the villa in Fishbourne in Sussex, with stones in lime but nothing else there. The other is where difficult judgement calls have to be made, and where there is just enough to think and reconstruct in your imagination. It is an interesting thought that there will still be spaces that one has to mentally complete, and others that are complete. Even in describing the chapel, there is a double experience of not form, but a double form of experience. You have several ways of reading something at the same time.
AF: The strangest fact is that the baronial house around which the modernist form wrapped has now gone, so you have this strange void. The landscape is full of absence; full of voided memory. So how you play with the traces can either reach a point where its disappearance leaves a sense of banality, or, at best, leaves you with a spark to think back through time. I was thinking of this notion of ‘contested space’. If you go back to the fifteenth or sixteenth century, there was perhaps some form of manorial house and there was the classic Scottish castle or keep, with a very old ‘right of way’ down the side of the burn that would have linked Cardross village with markets along Loch Lomond and further North. So you can imagine that was very public, even though the keep would have had a private function. In the Victorian designed landscape, you have more of a sense of enclosure.
EH: It is almost a form of privatisation, isn’t it?
AF: And yet, because the mid nineteenth-century owners, the Burns – who made their money through Cunard – were of that liberal, philanthropic tradition, it was relatively permeable. I don’t know if it was generally ‘open’, but there were definitely paths laid out and there was public access, at times. So it wasn’t the equivalent of a completely gated estate. Then there was a whole period in which there was the semi-legal activity of poaching and fruit and vegetable raids by those with less money in the area – so there was that other form of permeability that has continued, through to the current feral state of the site as a ruin. Recently people have made it their own, and used it primarily as a cultural resource and an inspiration for their own work.
EH: What you are saying is that the site is not an enclosure, but it is a focus with varying degrees of permeability around it.
AF: It’s never simply clear-cut. We have reached a point now at which we are attempting to give value and ownership to each visitor, who, as an active protagonist, takes the narrative on and decodes it on their own terms.
EH: Are you imagining or projecting that everybody who uses it actually steers its future in some way?
AF: I think that you have an absolute right to go there on a sunny day, walk your dog and have a cup of tea, and do whatever you want; but there will be a series of programmes that specifically invite your response. We might for example do a ‘weekly run’.
EH: It’s the new Mass!
AF: When you move and use other levels of physicality as you travel through that landscape, and invite others to do the same, you can build up a kind of physical cartography of the site. If you were to then simply document how it makes runners feel, what it makes them see and how they look at the phenomena around them and then recorded these reactions, you would already build an interesting resource. The idea is that there are a number of ways that ask for a more direct involvement.
EH: Any of the paths that people either make or that exist through that bit of land are very layered; some of them might be an old drovers’ road, some of them might be an ornamental Victorian path, some of them might be something that somebody hacked through the undergrowth to go and smoke their weed – and each of those means something very different as a path, as a route. Both in the sense of how it was established, and also in the sense that somebody who is walking down there now may have a completely different conception of what these paths mean. Perhaps the main thing to remember about paths is that they only exist because people use them; when they don’t use them anymore then they disappear. You can see that in the Highlands every year; certain paths are just beaten down and over-walked, and some others simply peter out.
AF: ERZ’s approach is that at times you don’t just have to follow the straight line from A to B, and that routes can sometimes lead you into confusion, just fade away rather than lead to a set point, and to work with that as part of breaking the mould and being more playful with what you have within the landscape.
EH: But, who is it for? That is the question, isn’t it?
AF: There are many ways in which people can learn, and there are many types of people we can learn from. I would like to see a flat structure where someone who worked in the walled garden forty or fifty years ago, who has a particular perspective or light to throw on it will sit alongside an academic whose research is a response to modernism, entropy and ruination. They will be talking about the same period, but from radically opposite perspectives. The implication therefore is that there isn’t one way of doing something, there isn’t one source – we keep coming back to that idea of multiplicity, or a pluralistic approach, and that it is important to explore this complexity. Communities are often torn by arguments and division and have other moments when they coalesce in a really good way. What the story of St Peter’s has done is bring some of those perspectives to the surface so it is very obvious that some love this building, some hate it, but there is a depth of feeling that is good to work with. It is not our role to paper over it: there is a liveliness to it.
EH: The metaphor is like the Berlin Wall – where one side of it is completely covered in graffiti, and the other side is immaculate because nobody is allowed to touch it. The building provides a lightning rod and it forces people to show their hand. You’re absolutely right that it is a myth that ‘community’ means that everybody gets on; actually, ‘community’ means that everyone helps fix the roof, but it doesn’t mean that they are pals.
AF: It is exactly the same when you look back at the religious community; it was certainly not a ‘holier than thou’ atmosphere. Some of the young seminarians would put bets on the horses on a Friday afternoon, which would be sneaked off site by the gardener’s family. One of the very odd things about St Peter’s is that at some times it was better known on the other side of the world than it was within ten square miles of the building. It almost became invisible, on a local level, apart from to a few people who hadn’t been put off by the enclosed nature of the woods, or the reputation of the nefarious activities going on within the seminary in its abandoned form. But it has also existed as a national and international story, where people in the art and architectural community know the narrative of the building very well. It is very interesting to work with and widen the definition of community.
EH: It has had a sort of mythical status, hasn’t it? By being ‘apparently’ inaccessible, but then for the local people, who could access it, it was ‘not there’, it was just a sort of ‘hole’.
AF: NVA are taking on this complexity, and it represents a very optimistic step. As everyone searches for terms for what they are doing, I keep coming back to this notion of the ‘productive’, which Alan Pert (of NORD) introduced: productive art and productive landscape, and what that means. It is slightly utopian, because ‘production’ by its very nature means the act of bringing forth, of producing knowledge, of producing the new form that comes out of the restored building and landscape. In a wider sense it is an attempt to move beyond passive consumerism, and to let the people who come know, at certain times, that there is the opportunity to do more, and that that is inherently a good thing.
EH: People go to arts centres for a day out when it is raining, and to get a nice cappuccino … that is effectively like going and walking around Ikea and looking at the kitchens, because it doesn’t produce anything, or it relies on production by a very tight body of professionals. That is so different from asking people to do something, which we are not used to. With work you are given your money and you give over your time, and there is a sort of exchange. But beyond that, people doing things, it is not easy to get people to do that, because you’re asking overlapping communities, very different communities. And visitors who might come for a day, or who might be coming for six months. But in a sense that’s what monasteries and friaries used to do, to some extent: there was always the old lady who came to do the flowers, and there were always monks who painted the ritual habit again and again …
AF: I’d say people could overlap in an unselfconscious way, and that is a tricky state to maintain, but that is a particular holy grail. It’s also important that we don’t see what we offer as the most important thing, and for everyone to be precious around what is being delivered. Sometimes it might be about the opposite – taking the skills out of the site to assist with particular local problems. In Cardross, for example, they are fighting to keep the library alive. One of the most powerful things that has arisen from local dialogues, is that a number of interest groups are beginning to emerge. We would facilitate rather than lead those groups to for example, collect mementoes from the history of Kilmahew / St Peter’s that might be found in personal collections, gathering dust in people’s attics, on the other side of the world. We’ve been sent a reference to a curling ball that was inscribed and slid across the ice in 1901 for the opening of the curling pond in Kilmahew Woods. Mementoes like this can be brought in, and then the local library can become a focus and a resource to document them, and become a new hub of evidence, an archive, as it builds up.
EH: The temptation would be to suggest ‘you can put your library in our hands, and we will sort it out for you’, but actually that’s not the point.
AF: The other aspect of the education programme, which I suppose drives it for me, is that over the last ten years, I’ve been pulled into lots of seminars, workshops, conferences and symposia in various academic institutions that sometimes generate really good new thinking, but often present it in an over-concentrated form. I think too much is attempted in too short a period of time. Books or papers are produced, which are disseminated within academic networks, but that information doesn’t necessarily go out into the wider world. The arts and humanities have been particularly weak in that sense. Although we are on one level hoping to make another small, isolated set up, the aim within it would be to bring some of that great and groundbreaking thinking out and make it available for people in surroundings that are themselves inherently inspirational. The work and the setting will theoretically generate a strong way of gaining new insight.
EH: Once upon a time as an academic you’d write four papers in as many years, and as long as they had an ISB number attached to them it was marvellous. Now they want you to show that someone has read it and acted upon it, gone and done something, so it’s changed their world. How have you influenced someone’s behaviour? Everyone is running around to try to prove this!
AF: So the importance here is the external partnerships. St Peter’s can position itself effectively as a conduit for people who might be interested in a whole range of specialised subjects, which you bring back into the landscape and root by using physical evidence related to theory or findings.
EH: There is nothing like a place to do that, because places make you think. It was great that we discussed this in Venice; that is the sort of place that forces you to think about what cities are and what buildings are, because it is so weird. That is what St Peter’s can do: work as a site that forces you to think about the relationship of buildings to nature, the relationship of various visions of landscape to buildings and time, programme and structure. As you say, those things become teaching devices.
AF: The thinking is that you would have a lead academic discipline each year, so each season of research is led by a particular line of inquiry within an invited network of participating institutions. Then, come the summer, the outcomes of this research are disseminated with a force of imagination through [artists’] commissions, but all driven from the core perspective of that discipline. The interpretation would change the next year, so you are not creating a point of stasis. As fresh channels of thinking arise and as knowledge accrues and changes, the invited feedback from the public within those programmes will keep revealing new perspectives on the site and our place within it.
EH: This steers away from the whole tradition of gardens being didactic, where for instance the temple in the landscape means something specific and you walk around it and it tells you what to think. There’s also a tradition of gardens as sites of temporary events, like Versailles, which emerged out of a sequence of parties, each of which lasted over three days every May for twenty years [that’s how the gardens built up: as relics of these parties, through amazing installation events]. What you then do is layer that landscape, because the interpretation of it varies each year. The landscape itself will be changing, and the state of the building will be changing. It will be fascinating. Because it is an extruded section, the temptation of the seminary building is that you just fill in the next arch, or the next archive; that would be like honeybees filling it up!
AF: Yes, it is a wonderful battle between idealism and practicality.
EH: So, when the building control officer actually comes round and says, ‘Is it finished yet?’, you can say, ‘Yes, in about 40 years and I don’t know what it’s going to look like’. There have been many architectural utopian models in the past based on the infinitely extendable building; the British Library in London, for example, has this idea to extend indefinitely along railway tracks. But what is so hard is the building industry, planning industry and funders all asking what the result will be, while really you are trying not to get painted into a corner.
AF: One of the challenges is to avoid that sense you get with quite a lot of historic landscapes where it is like coming back to an old friend. It gives the false comfort that you think you understand the perspective that built it, because it all becomes too readable.
EH: At the end of the Futurist Manifesto they state that the oldest of them is thirty years old, so they have ten years in which to finish their work, before the young come and take them away! It is a difficult model to build on, but in a sense one can be assured that the future will be unpredictable, and that is a great thing. In 1992 I visited a beautiful garden in Sri Lanka built by architect Geoffrey Bawa in the 1950s. It looked like he had worked on it for 200 years. He’d built all the walls and foundations so that they burst open with all the roots coming out, and he’d never cut the grass, so it felt like a lawn that had grown over, and every building was like a ruined pavilion, a raw wilderness with buildings that had been demolished.
AF: Was it seen as a radical exercise, or a romantic exercise?
EH: For him it was a romantic exercise, because he wanted it to maintain itself in that state all the time. But that seemingly unloved state in a process of decay actually had to be incredibly carefully maintained, so it was a manicured artform.
AF: Given the monumentality of the forms at St Peter’s, there’s an assumption that there is a rawness and a vitality in that brutal, exposed concrete form that will gravitate away from a more direct romantic reading. Or maybe it’s just a nuanced romanticism?
EH: A lot of the mythologising of St Peter’s over time is actually deeply romantic. I think we are allowed to be romantic about modernism, because its tale is so tragic.
©’To Have and to Hold, Future of a Contested Landscape’, Published by NVA, Glasgow and Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh.