Last Saturday, a troupe of intrepid ramblers, otherwise known as GSA Library & Learning Resources team, embarked on a self-guided tour of the Kilmahew Estate in Cardross. We had absconded from Garnethill with one simple mission: to find the ruins of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s masterpiece, St Peter’s Seminary. And, of course, to discuss it over lunch! It’s fair to say that this had all the hallmarks of a Gillespie, Kidd & Coia pilgrimage being made in the footsteps of early Christian missionaries, Scots nobility and trainee priests as we soon discovered from our appointed tour-guide, Architecture Librarian David Buri!
We set off in the morning under a murky-looking sky and proceeded into the woods at Kilmahew Estate – a moving sea of cagoules and backpacks. Thankfully for us, the weather was on our side, and as we progressed further from the perimeter and through the rhododendrons, the only thing we had to fear was the odd crack of a golf-ball from Cardross Golf Course, in dangerously close proximity to the track! Stepping through the undergrowth, we tried to recreate in our minds the original grandeur of the the estate’s ornamental gardens, driveways and parkland. Two exceptionally tall redwood trees flanking the path at the original entrance were a reminder of the estate’s historic roots and the status it would have enjoyed, only decades ago.
At the top of the route we reached our destination: the dramatic ruins of St Peter’s Seminary, built in the 1960s and abandoned since 1980. The post-apocalyptic scene we encountered is something to behold: a derelict building, ravished by time, blemished by grafitti, yet still powerfully capable of inducing frissions down the spine. Perhaps it’s down to our current fetish for all things Brutalist, but this was similar to experiencing the sublime in nature – achieved through architecture!
The photos we’re used to seeing in the GKC Archive in GSA’s Archive and Collection Centre are black and white so we were unprepared for Kilmahew Estate’s vivid colours. Sienna-cobbled stonework, red tree-bark, green, lilac and pink shrubbery and neon grafitti have created a unique collage: something like a forgotten space-ship crash in medieval times or the set of a science-fiction film! At close range, it’s overwhelmingly apparent why the seminary is often given the accolade of being the best example of work by partners Andy MacMillan and Izi Metzstein and is revered by many as the most important piece of twentieth-century modernist architecture in post-war Britain. The contrasting curved and angular walls of the complex envelope the ruins of the once standing Kilmahew House which once stood as the structure’s fourth wall. The majestic design and the scale of the concrete build is incredible; as too is the clear level of disrepair. We were thrilled, surprised and dismayed all at once!
As one of the few post-war buildings to be granted A-listed status, there is something melancholic and aesthetically-alluring about the seminary’s abandonment, demise and unorthodox appropriation by grafitti artists. While its conservation seems to be something of an architectural frisbee, plans to conserve it as a community space were submitted by landscape architects erz in February of this year. To read more about the proposed rehabilitation of St Peter’s, make sure to check for updates on Glasgow Architecture’s website.
Reincarnation emerged as a recurrent theme as we followed the tour onwards. The entire Kilmahew Estate has had many incarnations – each new vision and design has been followed by decline and ruin. After the excitement of the seminary, we also discovered the ruins of nearby Kilmahew Castle, and explored the gardens where an ornamental pond, waterfall and rhododendron tunnel can be found. It was then onto a nearby farm-shop and tearoom for a well-deserved lunch and post-tour analysis! We even found time to stop at nearby Geilston Hall on the road back to Glasgow, a drill-house designed by a young Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1889.
The tour is free to download from The Royal Geographical Society’s website as part of the Discovering Britain project. You can download written and audio guides from the website. The booklet (available to download here: Kilmahew – walk booklet and in stock in GSA Library) includes the black and white images of St Peter’s Seminary from the GSA Gillespie, Kidd & Coia archive. Check the ACC blog for related GKC posts.