First published in The Times, Monday March 21 2016
The history and fate of St Peter’s Seminary has acquired an almost mythical status over the past 50 years. Designed by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein of the architects Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, based in Glasgow, the building served as a training college for priests for just over a decade before being left to fester in the woods north of the village of Cardross, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
The campaign to restore the category A-listed building has gathered steam in recent years, boosted by the involvement of NVA, the site-specific performance company. Led by Angus Farquhar, artistic director, the company has presented large-scale works in locations ranging from Skye’s Trotternish peninsula to Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.
Hinterland, the first fruits of an ambitious plan to reclaim St Peter’s and the surrounding landscape, is the opening event of Scotland’s Festival of Architecture 2016.
Pic: Alan McAteer
While the promenade performance, reached by bus from nearby Helensburgh, will prove an emotional journey for anyone who has followed the decline and resurgence of St Peter’s, the event can be enjoyed purely on a sensory level, without prior knowledge of the building or its architectural significance. The opening uphill trek immerses participants in an eerie fairytale atmosphere. We climb a roughtrodden path, passing through a tunnel of trees, the bare branches forming a skeletal canopy above our heads.
Our main source of illumination is the staff-cum-light-sabre issued as we emerge from the bus. The sense of being lost in an otherworldly landscape is heightened by subtly shifting lighting, designed by Phil Supple, and evocative sound effects, faintly coming and going in every direction.
The main event is, naturally, the arrival at the seminary itself. What is particularly gratifying about NVA’s intervention is the lack of an attempt to shy away from its current state. There is as much emphasis on the interplay between the building’s nooks and corners and the recent addition of ornate graffiti art as there is on the rugged beauty of the original architecture.
Pic: Alaisdair Smith
The centrepiece, which takes place in the belly of the seminary, again combines sculptural light, projections and music, interacting with the building’s depthless symmetry and lethally sharp edges to stunning effect. The presence of a huge censer dispensing clouds of incense to the strains of music composed by Rory Boyle for St Salvator’s Chapel Choir from the University of St Andrews reminds us of the building’s origins. The light changes, becoming harsher, once again exposing slogans, damp surfaces and cracks in concrete.
With no route map or guidebook, our understanding of the seminary’s history plays second fiddle to the amazing atmospherics created by Farquhar, James Johnson, NVA’s associate visual director, and the rest of the team. In their hands the revered building has become an ornate canvas on to which we, the audience, further project our own associations and contemplations.
Box office: 0844 573 8482, to March 27. Hinterland.org