... and a great church at the mercy of vandals

Gavin Stamp laments the neglect of a controversial Scottish masterpiece
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The Independent Culture
Glasgow - "City of Architecture and Design" in 1999 - is known for two names of international stature: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Alexander "Greek" Thomson. But many other great talents have helped to create its distinct architectural characte r, among them David Hamilton, Charles Wilson, John Burnet and his son JJ Burnet, James Sellars, James Salmon ... but what of the 20th century, whose history, for Glasgow in particular, has been so traumatic and misunderstood? In the years after the Second World War, a period largely characterised by self-hatred and frenetic urban renewal, there was, in fact, new architecture being created that is worthy of comparison with the best of the past but which, until recently, was little known.

After I moved to Glasgow I was slowly made aware of the existence of a secret masterpiece, a building quietly spoken of as the finest example of modern architecture in Scotland, whose poignant condition somehow symbolised the sad state of Scottish architecture. This was the seminary of St Peter's, Cardross, hidden in wooded grounds some miles down the Clyde. It was designed by the firm of Gillespie,. Kidd & Coia and built between 1958 and 1966 as the supreme manifestation of the enlightened artistic patronage that characterised the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow in the Fifties and Sixties. Here at Cardross, homage was paid to Le Corbusier with peculiar subtlety and invention.

Unfortunately, the seminary soon proved to be surplus to requirements. After performing other functions, it was eventually abandoned by the archdiocese, which was only prevented from demolishing it by the fact that it lay within the curtilage of KilmahewHouse - a listed baronial pile by the elder Burnet - around which the architects had so cleverly grouped the new buildings. Eventually security was withdrawn, with predictable results. When Historic Scotland decided to list the whole complex as CategoryA in 1992 (the equivalent of Grade 1 south of the border), both the modern seminary and Burnet's innocent Victorian house had been systematically vandalised and were little better than ruins.

This obscene, sacrilegious vandalism has continued, yet the brilliance of the architects' conception still shines. The high quality joinery has been stripped out, but the sculptural forms of reinforced concrete stand firm. The long, low lines of the college buildings are offset by the silo-like forms of the side chapels, standing upright like sentinels, while light still flooded into the remarkable chapel. This, along with the refectory, were planned as a continuous long space with the accommodation stacked above as a sort of open pyramid, so that seminarians could look down and feel part of the community. To see so clever and powerful a design - as well as so much intelligent built capital - thus maltreated seems incomprehensible .

Now it is well known that there were functional problems at Cardross, as with many of the churches designed by Gillespie, Kidd & Coia. The remarkable post-war buildings by this firm were not the unaided efforts of Jack Coia himself, but largely the work of Isi Metztstein and Andy MacMillan, who were dazzled by Le Corbusier and who experimented in the plans and forms of churches up to and beyond the capabilities of Glasgow contractors. It was a heroic story that ended in tears, both because the firm has ceased to exist and because the archdiocese is saddled with huge maintenance bills. But tears are also to be shed because nothing worthy has risen to replace this vigorous local expression of the Modern movement.

I dread being asked by visitors what modern buildings are worth seeing in Glasgow, for it is not comfortable to have to be negative. Yes, there are good firms working such as Page & Park and Elder & Cannon, but the big jobs go to second-rate firms producing feeble imitations of the National Gallery extension school of American Post-modernism (and that is bad enough) while Glasgow's high rise disasters are being replaced by too much twee, trivial building of orange, yellow or red brick, wholly inappropriate in a city that was once all stone. As for the Royal Concert Hall, opened in the Year of Culture 1990, most visitors assume it was built in the Thirties, while the more aware recognise it as Stalinist stripped-classical of the Fifties.

What makes this all so sad is that Scotland once had one of the most interesting architectural cultures in Europe, producing a remarkable number of the greatest British architects, out of all proportion to her population. How can this be revived? It see m s to me that there are two possible architectural paradigms for a small nation seeking to establish (or re-establish) its own identity, one followed in the Scandinavian nations to which Scotland should be looking for a lead. One is to seek to create a mo dern architecture from deeply rooted local traditions. This was the path followed by many Victorians, not least Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in whose work the influence of Scottish vernacular has been consistently underestimated. The other route is to cult ivate a local and highly sophisticated expression of an international style. This is what Adam, Burnet and Thomson did with the Classical language in the 18th and 19th centuries and what Gillespie, Kidd & Coia succeeded in achieving at Cardross in our ow n century.

Recognition of the quality of Glasgow's modern Roman Catholic churches has come, although only three years, as reported on this page, St Benedict's in Drumchapel was suddenly demolished in advance of imminent listing. Historic Scotland has now announced the listing of 14 more churches by Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, but this does not help Cardross. Nevetherless, a small number of people continue to maintain that St Peter's, Cardross, represents a remarkable achievement and that, along with, say, Thomson's StVincent Street Church and Mackintosh's School of Art, it is one of the truly great monuments of Scottish architecture.

Even now, with goodwill and imagination, those much abused yet still powerful concrete forms could be repaired and put to good use. The archdiocese would like part of the site to be developed with new housing to enable the seminary buildings to be restored, but the land is designated Green Belt and the local authority is opposed to the idea. So stalemate results and the vandalism continues. This, it must be said, is not another of Glasgow's problems for 1999 as Cardross is the responsibility of Dumbarton district council. Yet, the fate of Scotland's finest modern building - empty this Christmas - is surely a matter of national concern, and national shame.

The writer is a lecturer at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow.

The first "Mac Journal", devoted to the works of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, is available from the Mackintosh School of Architecture, 177 Renfrew Street, Glasgow G3 6RQ, price £10.

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