2007 - 2021

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.



Comments (10)

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  1. David McGill says:

    That’s a shame. St Peter’s is a remarkable piece of work.

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    I’m a Philistine.

    St Peter’s was abandoned because it was not fit for purpose ; no amount of money spent will ever make it a useful building for any length of time.

    The Hill House it to have a large amount of money spent to create a weatherproof shell around it because it cannot be made weatherproof. This shell is to remain until somebody comes up with an idea that is a solution to its problems. The internal design is marvellous but the shell is not fit for purpose in West of Scotland weather. It would be more sensible to do something with the inside, perhaps remove the better parts and set them up in another functional shell and let nature take it’s course with it.

    We should spend no more money on useless ornaments that have failed the test of time. I would prefer to see something like The Panoptican in Glasgow, which is structurally sound, rescued and brought back into use and that would be a better use for scarce finances than worry about these that are white elephants.

    1. St Peter’s was abandoned for a variety of reasons, few of which were its physical state.

      I agree with you about the Panopticon but St Peter’s was an internationally recognised architectural prize, and as the articled explains, much of the vision was for the surrounding land, not just the building …

  3. LE says:

    easy to infer Creative Scotland are to blame, but unclear how retaining NVA as a Regular Funded Organisation has anything to do with it,…. NVA effectively announced they were not proceeding with the St Peter’s project last October… well before the RFO decision was made, and why would Creative Scotland then plough more cash their way if they were already laying off project staff?

  4. Eoghan says:

    It’s sad for nva but St Peter’s was brilliant before its makeover. Hinterland picked it clean making it palatable for the bussed in.

    The beauty of GKC’s controlled light seen in Murray Grigor’s film is only possible through full restoration and this was never nva’s plan.

    Now it’s neither a rich experience of design nor decay, some things should be left alone.

  5. RDS says:

    Not much to disagree with there, Mike, (except I quite liked the running round Arthur’s Seat!). I guess I just wish NVA hadn’t bet the firm on St Peters; that’s what did for them, rightly or wrongly, and they had more to offer than that. Like Mr Blackwood, I think it was irrecoverable, either as a building or as a site, on even the most benign cost-benefit equation.

  6. Ewen McLachlan says:

    The likelihood is that Hysterical Scotland, will simply preserve it in it’s ruinous state, stick up a handful of badly designed interpretation boards, charge folk an entry fee and in a few years time it’ll go back to being forgotten about all over again…

    This is the problem with contemporary Scotland, we talk a good game of visionary and radical ideas but when reality arrives we’re left with maudling sentiment over lost opportunities and a backroom blame game, where accountancy outweighs innovation and RISK. If the Scottish government want us to embrace risk as voters in regards to Independence, then they should lead by example and furnish those who see creativity askew with the required support and funds.

  7. Wul says:

    Agree that we, in Scotland, are very poor at retaining our most special buildings and places, often failing to recognise that what we have is world class. It’s sad that this project has died.

    However, I can’t help feeling that if St Peter’s had been sufficiently loved it would not have fallen into ruin. Human beings feel happiest in buildings which human-relatable scale and which are themselves a kind of “being”. Buildings which make us feel held, delighted and valued.

    Space-age, alien-like concrete temples may be initially impressive and awe inspiring but they don’t really make us feel good. St Peter’s, ignoramus that I am, reminds me of other award winning structures like the Cumbernauld Centre or the now mostly dismantled Anderston Shopping & Bus Centre.

    I’d suggest that anyone interested in making places which actually enhance human life take a look at the work of Christopher Alexander and his Pattern Language and Living Neighbourhoods approach. The web sites are a bit old and clunky, the language a bit seemingly naive but the message is deep and true.



  8. Dr Jan Hogarth says:

    What NVA achieved was remarkable and Angus Farquhar is a visionary on so many levels, working with people, the evolution of new practices, temporary socially engaged visual stunning, playful, profound and emotive experiences.

    I was disturbed at the way Creative Scotland treated Andrew Dixon who managed to take the arts and culture bravely out making the economic argument for further investment, when he left he had been almost destroyed but rose up out of the fire to get Hull City of Culture.

    Venu Dhupha, who was also pushed out, is now working for the British Council, was also a visionary….I don’t know the inside story but Scotland needs outward looking visionaries and people who are good at there craft and practice. Great artworks are brave, deep, transformational and multilayered which pretty much sums up NVA and Angus’s practice. Our creative body should also follow that recipe. Maybe it will now Richard Wilson of Jupiter Artland is chair? Heres hoping!!

    Whats going on with Creative Scotland are they feart?(of the government? of what people think? of the board?). Where is the route cause of this fear? Great art comes from courage and love and passion….not fear! Its challenging economic time we all understand that but whats going on?

  9. Willie says:

    Quite frankly any repair and restoration to this dilapidated ruin would be an absolutely horrendous money sink, and there ain’t a queue of patrons stranding ready to throw their dosh in.

    The architect got it in one when he said the problem with the building’s extensive water ingress was due to having to build outside.

    Iconic this ruin of new brutalism may be but its time has come and gone.

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