THIS week, we present … A Tale of Two Buildings. It was the best of plans, it was the worst of plans. Such might be said of St Peter’s Seminary, near Cardross, Dunbartonshire, which was built in 1966 to a design often categorised as “brutalist”. Certainly, it was “modernist”, which not all modern buildings are, oddly enough. Those fitting that description are not often loved. That is not the case – at least now – with St Peter’s, which is benefiting from a peculiar new mood that considers brutalism cuddly. I’ve some sympathy with this, at least in the case of St Peter’s, which has odd nooks and some interesting features, even if – for my money – it would be nothing without its woodland setting.
In building a seminary as the Sixties were getting properly under way, the first mistake was to assume that, presented with the possibility of free love and drug-induced nirvana, young men would in steady numbers prefer a life of celibacy and heaven deferred. Offered loon pants or a cassock, likely lads opted for the former. As the bottom fell out of the theology business, and opium became the religion of the people, St Peter’s later found a relevant new role as a drug rehabilitation centre before falling, like some of its charges, into disuse and ruin. Long before this, like many modernist buildings in Scotia Minor, it leaked.
In addition, the old baronial Kilmahew House, round which the new building had been constructed, suffered from two fires and had to be demolished. That, in a sense, might have been that, but aficionados of the place never gave up and, this week, the arts company NVA revealed that its plans to bring St Peter’s back into public use would be boosted by sales of a bespoke gin produced by the Glasgow Distillery. By public use, they mean teaching spaces, art events, restored woodland paths and productive gardens. It sounds marvellous, and you can really detect the love that the good folk at NVA have for the place.
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The same might be said of Sandy Stoddart and the National Monument of Scotland on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. The Monument, inspired by the Parthenon in Athens and begun in 1822, is famously incomplete. Designed by Charles Cockerell and William Playfair, the Monument only got as far as a base and 12 Doric columns, after an appeal for public funds failed to reach its target. Conceived to commemorate Scottish servicemen who died in the Napoleonic War, it was supposed also to house a church and a catacomb for Scotland’s brightest and best. In time, it came to be called “Edinburgh’s disgrace”, though decent ratepayers in the capital are actually rather proud of it. It’s right classical, ken? Besides, the National Monument of Scotland now perfectly symbolises the country’s half-finished democracy, a situation that similarly manages to be both ambitious and embarrassing. Scotland, the country that put the “Part” in “Parthenon”.
Over the years, various plans have been put forward to complete the monument, and these have met with a mixed response. In 2004, it was suggested that 150 flagpoles should be erected on the site. These would fly prayers and messages of goodwill to the world from schoolchildren. However, this came to nothing and the organisers had to concede they were flagging a dead horse.
The latest flap has been caused by Mr Stoddart, the Queen’s official sculptor in Scotland, offering to assemble a team of experts to complete the National Monument. While I am in an estimated two minds about this, I sympathise with his wish to rescue the idea of Edinburgh as “Athens of the North”. He is critical of modern-day “generic horrors”, which have turned the capital into the “Dubai of the North”. Certainly, a dubious Dubai will not do. And of his project, Mr Stoddart says stoutly: “It can be done.”
However, one suspects many capital residents will feel the National Monument should remain an undone deal.