Toggle menu

Revelling in Ruins

by Carine Brannan
Landscape will be the catalyst for the revitalisation of the admired but ruined St Peter’s Seminary on the outskirts of Glasgow. ERZ has come up with a masterplan for the landscape that is unusually fluid and focuses on engagement and interaction rather than a range of fixed features.

Visitors to Glasgow might easily be fooled into thinking that Charles Rennie Mackintosh is Glasgow’s only architect of note. References to his work abound throughout the city from his internationally recognised Glasgow School of Art to reconstructed houses and tearooms – even to his stylised typography on posters and shop fronts. But this may all be about to change. Move over Mack – there’s a new kid in town!
 
The ruined St Peter’s Seminary, at Kilmahew Glen on the outskirts of Glasgow, is all that remains today of a radical 1960s modernist building. This highly contested site has been the subject of much debate regarding its possible fate since it was abandoned to the forces of nature over 30 years ago. Now Scottish-based environmental art agency NVA’s campaign to resuscitate Kilmahew/St Peter’s has had a significant boost, receiving a first-round pass from the Heritage Lottery Fund. 
 
What is most fascinating about the regeneration process is the decision to use the surrounding landscape as the conceptual starting point of the project with an emphasis on the landscape as a tool to re-animate the site. Most notably, this project’s boldest innovation is the consideration of the building as a sculptural element within the landscape.
 
Project history
The Kilmahew/St Peter’s site is 20 miles northwest of Glasgow, close to Cardross village in Argyll and Bute and overlooking the Clyde Valley. The 40ha south-facing site is predominantly wooded and 
lies within the Green Belt. The landscape has seen successive reshaping over centuries and contains sections of native woodlands and distinctive river gorges. There is evidence of built and natural forms throughout the site but these have been variously subsumed by unmanaged vegetation and decay.
 
From the thirteenth century the land belonged to the Lairds of Napier with the last Laird forced to 
sell off land. By 1820 the remains of the estate were bought by the Burns family, who were industrialists and shipping merchants. They undertook extensive improvements to the estate, transforming the
surrounding farmland into parkland. Kilmahew was redesigned into a Victorian ‘romantic’ ornamental estate with Kilmahew House as the centrepiece, a baronial Victorian mansion built from sandstone that had been quarried locally. 
 
Some original Victorian planting still exists, such as invasive Rhododendron ponticum, whilst much has long since disappeared. In 1866, John Fleming, a renowned gardener who had previously worked at Cliveden House on the Thames, designed a walled garden including heated glasshouses dedicated to growing vegetables and a wide range of fruits.The partially collapsed frames of these glasshouses remain. During the late nineteenth century, a number of exotic tree species were introduced from around the world, particularly from Japan. In 1919 the estate was sold again, with the new owners undertaking further modernisation. Recently local volunteers have brought the walled gardens back into agricultural production.
 
The Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow bought the estate in 1948, using Kilmahew House as a theological college, and in 1958 the Archbishop commissioned St Peter’s Seminary. Developed by the Scottish architectural firm Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, its architects Isi Metzstein and Andy McMillan produced innovative designs for a modernist concrete construction. It was hailed as one of the finest modern buildings of the day, and Metzstein and McMillan cited Le Corbusier’s La Tourette monastery as being amongst their influences. Their radical and daring complex of buildings was designed to wrap around the existing mansion house. Their design won the prestigious RIBA Architecture award in 1967.  
 
But by 1984 the seminary had been abandoned, with severe weather damage continuing to take its toll on the building. Lack of land management led to further deterioration of the surrounding estate and parkland. The seminary buildings were attracting international recognition, receiving Category ‘A’ listing from Historic Scotland in recognition of their architectural importance, and in 2005 the World Monument Fund listed St Peter’s as one of the world’s most endangered buildings.
 
With funding from Historic Scotland, Avanti Architects was commissioned to complete a conservation assessment and cost report for the buildings and ERZ Landscape Architects tasked with undertaking a landscape overview study.  These reports helped inform dialogue regarding future ambitions and the development of a creative response to the site. ERZ’s study, carried out in parallel to ecological and preliminary woodland assessments, led to a fuller understanding of the site and the qualities of the complex landscape. Meanwhile, NVA, working with Urban Splash and funded by the Scottish Arts Council, created a series of art commissions for the site. Further attempts to develop the site commercially, including a proposal by Urban Splash, failed to provide sufficient financial returns, leaving NVA in sole discussion with the diocese.  
 
The masterplan
ERZ led the masterplan development, describing it as a ‘model for a new creative and productive landscape’ and in 2012 the proposal won the Neighbourhood Planning Category in the Landscape Institute Awards.  
 
‘The project, instead of focusing exclusively on the building, considers this remarkable building and its landscape setting together, creating a public landscape that becomes a locus for an ongoing creative process,’ said the judges. ‘In this way the landscape leads the regeneration. The aim is to shift people’s relationship to the landscape from one of being a passive observer or detached consumer to having an active physical or intellectual engagement.’  
 
The masterplan evolved from the earlier Kilmahew/ St Peter’s Commission Plan (May 2010), which sets out the rationale for revitalising the site. Including a review of the site’s historical context, the condition of the built heritage and natural landscape plus presenting examples of precedent projects, this document acted as a statement of intent for NVA’s future ambitions. The masterplan also responds to and is informed by the earlier landscape overview study and art commissions for the site. It aims to introduce incremental placemaking, allowing Kilmahew to become an ‘other’ space where people can enjoy experiences that they do not have in  their day-to-day lives. The presumption is that by redefining the idea of ‘territory’ you can enhance personal experiences beyond the landscape itself. Rolf Roscher, director of ERZ, describes the approach as shifting people’s relationship with the landscape from one of being a passive observer or detached consumer, to having a more active physical, sensory and intellectual engagement helping to build a strong sense of ‘place’.  
 
The masterplan focuses on two main landscape interventions that are creative responses to the earlier pieces of research designed to provoke personal experience of the site. Firstly, Kilmahew’s landscape should retain a sense of surprise and discovery through a deliberate management of a sequence of ‘reveals’ and ‘thresholds’. ERZ’s landscape overview study describes the power of the site as resulting from its enclosed nature and the sudden unexpected revealing of long and panoramic views. Secondly, the site should maintain the qualities of the ‘interim state’ of certain locations, such as the on-going colonisation by birch trees within the estate. Planned regeneration of the Kilmahew site should be introduced gradually and sequentially to allow a holistic, rather than managed, transformation to take place. 
 
Two distinct public and academic engagements which provide creative and innovative inputs have also helped inform the masterplan development.  Firstly, NVA, in partnership with Creative Scotland and the British Council Scotland, presented a programme of events responding to the themes of restoration and reuse of St Peter’s at La Biennale di Venezia’s 2010 International Architecture Exhibition. A book, To Have and To Hold: Future of a Contested Landscape by Gerrie van Noord sets out the arguments and ambitions for the Kilmahew/St Peter’s site resulting from the Biennale conversations. Its collection of essays focuses on preserving the building and imagining the landscape as a place of permanent ‘flux’.  
 
Secondly, NVA partnered with Glasgow, Strathclyde and Edinburgh Universities to develop an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project. Called ‘The Invisible College’, this involved hosting a wide range of events, exhibitions and interventions in response to the buildings and historic grounds. Research focused on the ‘site as subject matter’, with a vision to re-imagine and transform the landscape, combining community activities, university-led research and contemporary arts practice. 
 
The masterplan represents a long-term vision, ‘anticipating the continuing generative, artistic and research activities, whilst retaining flexibility for change’. The initial phase will make the site safe and accessible with immediate intervention to remove invasive species and create environments for new planting and management, thus enabling remnants of earlier landscaping to be retained.  
 
Further phases focus on several key aspects of the landscape. The woodlands are in poor condition, lacking structure, and ERZ has identified sections that demand different interventions responding 
to the landscape’s origin, condition and qualities.  Three key developments include restoration of the walled garden, development of an upper meadow to provide a flexible growing space and a lower meadow that is earmarked for camping. The walled garden will provide space for cultivation  /... and will be the main focus for visitors to the site.  The redesign retains some existing elements such as apple trees, remnants of a yew hedge and a giant redwood Sequoiadendron giganteum with the addition of a hedge to define the northern boundary.
 
A series of meandering pathways will navigate the site, creating alternative ways to explore and expose the landscape. This new layout will reveal the complex layering of the site’s built and natural history. The existing slope that is the setting for seminary buildings will be re-profiled to establish a clean, sculpted landform, incorporating a number of stepped terraces, whilst a contemporary reinterpretation of the remains of the Japanese mountain garden will be created, revealing features from the earlier Victorian parkland.
 
The future
Glasgow, desperate to shake off its industrial past, sought new opportunities to represent itself. Architectural heritage, a rich source of the city’s pride, offered a fitting opportunity to present post-industrial Glasgow as a dynamic and creative city.  Step forward C.R. Mackintosh, who although moderately popular during his early career in Glasgow left the city, disillusioned, when interest in his pioneering style waned. Glasgow also turned its back on Kilmahew/St Peter’s with the building only occupied for 14 years before being left to its present demise. Is the circle now complete? 
 
In late 2013, NVA was awarded a first-round pass from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This released £565,000 of development funding, leading to a second-stage submission for £3 million in 2015.  Planning & Listed Building Consents for the designs have been approved and in a gesture of goodwill the archdiocese has conditionally agreed to donate the site for the public good. NVA announced the design team to take forward the plans, including Avanti Architects, ERZ Landscape Architects and NORD Architecture. Angus Farquhar, Creative Director of NVA, describes the masterplan as a ‘20 year aspiration – a manifesto for landscape intervention’. With a planned opening date scheduled for 2017, the new designs will provide an arts venue, a permanent exhibition, a ‘field station’ that will include informal teaching spaces, more than four kilometres of accessible woodland paths and a productive garden.
 
What makes this contested site of Kilmahew/St Peter’s so powerful is the juxtaposition of Brutalist architecture with the remnants of a Victorian bucolic landscape. The building, beloved by architects, provokes strong emotions in some critics who would rather it was razed to the ground. There’sa certain irony that in order to reinvent this architectural icon, the surrounding landscape has now become the catalyst for its regeneration. The real test of the Kilmahew/St Peter’s project will be to present a new form of landscape; one that can support and nurture fresh responses and which attracts support from not just local communities in and around Glasgow but beyond.
 
Further reading: Various documents, reports and videos, including those mentioned in the article, 
can be found on the NVA website nva.org.uk
 
Carine Brannan jointly runs the Landscape Interface Studio in the School of Architecture and Landscape at Kingston University.

Leave a comment

We use cookies to improve the browsing experience for you and others. If you would like to learn more about cookies please view our cookie policy. To accept cookies continue browsing as normal. Continue