The story of St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross began in the hopeful glow of modernism but rapidly darkened into disuse and dereliction. Built in 1966 after the radical design of Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein of the Glasgow-based architectural practice Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, the seminary was inhabited for just 13 years before it began a slow decline into its current ruinous state. Its erstwhile sanctity was celebrated by the late Canon James Foley, who described the beauty of the light streaming down across the chapel walls and floors. That beauty is now lost in the exposed shell of a building which seems not so much a space of learning and contemplation as a mouldering urban skate park or motorway underpass, its exposed concrete walls now plastered with graffiti and profanities, flagrantly mocking the formerly sacred space which it inhabits.
This sounds dispiriting. But when the Brutalist hulk of St. Peter’s became the lynchpin of Scotland’s 2016 Festival of Architecture, serving as a temporary home to a site-specific art installation, the building was transformed into a magical, otherworldly space filled with haunting choral music and light projections, offering a new and surprising kind of beauty for visitors to contemplate.
Hinterland was produced by NVA, a Glasgow-based public art organisation committed to affirming people’s connection to the built and natural environment. Alluding both to a geographically remote area as well as a metaphorical territory lying beyond what is visible or known, Hinterland animated St. Peter’s with a specially commissioned choral work as well as light installations, which brought to the fore both the majesty of the architecture as well as its parlous physical and moral state.
We were shuttled to and from the Hinterland site in buses from Helensburgh, admirably organised by a team of dedicated volunteers. The time slots were scheduled in the hours of darkness, and on arrival at Kilmahew woods each visitor was equipped with a light stick to navigate their passage down the pitch black (and perilously muddy) path. As visitors wound their way through the barren trees they made for an eerie and mysterious sight, a ghostly procession of lights on a pilgrimage into the dark. On approaching our destination, snatches of haunting music could be heard through the trees.
As the building hove into view it was a breathtaking sight. An awesome concrete shell, bedecked in graffiti and moss, with runnels of water dripping down the walls and pooling on the staircases, landings and walkways. As we were led through the space by stewards, our first stop was a broad concrete staircase into a crypt. On one side of the stairs were wide niches, on the other concrete plinths, and like so many mini-altars each of them contained white flickering candles. Their light glimmered on the graffiti-strewn walls, highlighting a prominent painting of a large skull. The steps seemed to lead nowhere but a pool of dirty rainwater caught in the square recess at its base, an ironic inversion of the purity of the baptismal font.
The Brutalist backdrop, the grotesque imagery and obscene language (the godless words “porn” and “magic” were illuminated on the wall of what was once a toilet cubicle) along with the sometimes discordant musical score combined with the driving rain, dripping walls and floors slick with water to create a setting worthy of Dante’s descent into Hell. The flames of the candles on the altar side of the building were echoed later when flickering red lights were projected through the cell-like spaces perched above the space that once accommodated the refectory; these too carried more than a whiff of the diabolical.
The refectory was also the location for a performance whose allusions to sacred Catholic ritual seamlessly co-existed with the infernal aura of the setting. The eerie sound of invisible choral voices was reminiscent of sacred chanting, prompting thoughts of the monks who once lived and studied here. Indeed the two mysteriously clad figures that appeared might themselves have been the ghosts of monks past. To the peaceful, harmonious sound of the unseen choir they emerged out of the gloom and stood before a cart, apparently welding, throwing flashing white lights up into the space. They then walked, sentinel like, along gangways on either side of the room, to launch an enormous thurible, strung up on iron cables, swinging across the centre of the room in which a large pool of rainwater had collected in a recessed floor. Incense could be seen billowing out over the water in some kind of industrial modernist variant of the Botafumeiro in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
The sacred traces echoing through this despoiled ruin made for a compelling and unforgettable experience of tremendous power. NVA’s intervention seemed to blur sanctity and profanity and explored how architecture of this type can be uplifting for and venerated by anybody, regardless of religious persuasion. For anyone (like me) with a penchant for urban and industrial ruins and an increasing appreciation of Brutalist architecture (which, like its primary material, concrete, is currently enjoying a considerable revival), the beauty of Hinterland was indisputable. By exploring how art can animate an architectural space and how a community of people can collectively experience a cultural event, Hinterland embodies NVA’s long term manifesto for St Peter’s, which champions public artistic practice as a shared human experience and as a means of opening up a democratic cultural space.