NVA, St Peter’s and Creative Scotland
It has been called the best 20th-century building in Scotland and “Scotland’s most significant modernist building”. St Peter’s seminary near Glasgow (built in 1966 and abandoned in 1980) has lain in ruins for decades. Now ambitious plans for its resurrection have been abandoned as NVA – who many consider to be Scotland’s most ambitious arts company – has announced it is to close. The company lost out to regular funding from Creative Scotland six months ago.
The building was the work of the firm of Gillespie Kidd and Coia. It was designed by two young members of his staff, Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, who would go on to become hugely influential architects of their era. It was like a concrete alien craft had landed in a forest glen. It was closed as a seminary in 1980, then used as drug rehabilitation centre from 1983 until the building was finally abandoned in 1987. In June 2007 St Peter’s was placed on the World Monument Fund list of the ‘World’s 100 Most Endangered Sites’.
For some it didn’t work at all and was notorious for leaking from the very start. When asked why his buildings leaked Andy MacMillan said: “I think it’s because we had to build them outside.”
But it was and is a thing of immense beauty. Canon Jim Foley, a veteran of St Peter’s, has written of “the elusive wonder and beauty” of the lighting in the sanctuary, and anyone who visited Hinterland as NVA began to open up the building to the public could see that for themselves. But if St Peter’s was a wonder it also held real foreboding, not just of its crusty crumbling asbestos-ridden form, or it as a site of sacrilegious spectacular illegal raves, but of the feeling of decay and depravity associated with the Catholic church since its demise. It was a deeply contested space, and that was one of the things that NVA’s director Angus Farquhar liked about it.
Farquhar was clear that the location itself was as exciting as the building. The psycho-geography of a glen with a Robert the Bruce castle, a convergence of three burns and a mixture of ancient forest and contrived Victorian landscaping was enticing for his vision to create an “international venue for public art and knowledge exchange”. In a country littered with dozens of soulless commercial festivals and meaningless events, the prospect was always that St Peter’s at Cardross would be something else.
NVA has built a reputation for site-specific events that are unprecedented in scale and ambition in this country.
It didn’t come always come off. People complained of The Storr being too long, too dark and Sorley Maclean’s poetry being inaudible. In fact traipsing about getting drookit was a recurring memory of NVA events. And I never really got the point of that thing running round and round Arthur’s Seat. But if the eventss could be hit or miss, that’s the entire point of experimental art. If you want to play super-safe go to the Festival.
I can still remember the impact of watching the (re) opening of the Doulton Fountains on Glasgow Green as statues we thought were stone came to life before us. If NVA could bring an ounce of the energy of the White Bikes (Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2010), the perfectly timed SAGE project, the magic of Half Life in Kilmartin Glen, (2007) the advanced melancholy of Grand Central (1999) or the serenity of the Hidden Gardens, originally conceived as a Peace Garden, St Peter’s would have been a huge success.
Today Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said:
“It is very sad that NVA has taken the decision to close. Since its foundation 25 years ago, it has earned a reputation as one of the most innovative public arts companies in the country, and many people will have fond memories of its productions, installations and performances.”
“NVA is to be particularly congratulated on injecting new life into St Peter’s Cardross, culminating in the Hinterland project in Scotland’s 2016 Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design. St Peter’s significance is well known internationally for its architecture and design, its natural setting and place in history.”
That’s not really good enough.
Sometimes you’ve got to step up and meet ambition. Isn’t that what the Scottish Government are asking the nation to do? It’s difficult to see how people are going to respond if they just witness cultural timidity and lack of aspiration.
The timelines are interesting: NVA lasted almost exactly as long as St Peter’s did.
The St Peter’s project emerged shortly after 2014, and seemed to hold out hope for some vision in those dark days. Instead again we are working with functionaries and low-bar cultural commissars. This is a low-point for Creative Scotland in a recent history that is crowded with low-points, crises and confusion.
There is word that the Fiona Hyslop has now stated: “I have asked Historic Environment Scotland as lead body for historic environment, to consider longer term options so this unique site can continue to fascinate and inspire the public.” All of which is good, if confusingly handled, but doesn’t help NVA.
NVA has an unsurpassed track record. Beltane itself was re-initiated by Angus Farquhar in 1988. This country needs to support people with real ambition or just give up the pretence that it has any itself.
Scotland has lost more than a dilapidated building with memories of junkies and priests.