Above is an aerial photo of what some consider Scotland’s most significant modernist building. Is that moss on the roof? What’s left after water seeped (or gushed) in, sparking problems that led to the almost obligatory debate between owner and architect over who to blame for the building’s flaws?
One flaw is that from above it looks like a discarded engine housing that has been sitting in the woods for two decades, gathering whatever stuff tends to gather on things left in the woods.
Well, look at it! It is the St. Peter’s Kilmahew Seminary, near Glasgow. Malcolm Millais sent me the photo, no doubt to lift my spirits. I looked for the photo on Google and found that it linked to a year-old story in The Guardian by Rowan Moore, “A Second Coming for Scotland’s Modernist Masterpiece?” Turns out that it was completed in 1966 but abandoned in 1980. One thing you can’t deny of Brutalism is its physical strength and staying power. (In 1989, dynamite failed to budge Hartford Park, a public-housing tower; actually it did budge, just a bit, and was called “The Leaning Tower of Providence” until it was taken down piece by piece.)
A year ago, Moore wrote approvingly of plans to resurrect the seminary as a venue for avant garde art installations, musical concerts and philosophical bloviation, and began his essay with a genuine bout of poetry, purring upon the subject of time and architecture:
There is no place like [St. Peter’s], on these islands, for the mutual battery of multiple forces, for the thumping, pummelling and attrition of creation and destruction, the incessant beating of weather, vandals and arson against rocks of obstinate architecture. It is like watching medieval knights club each other to death yet stay standing. It is a mud-wrestle of culture and nature.
Even old Brutalism can find itself partaking of a rough natural beauty if people will only refuse to maintain it, eventually abandon it, and leave it to the ravages of time. But I think Moore doth protest too hard. Classical architecture ages gently. Brutalism and other modern architecture that’s taken care of – frequently governmental because the government can force citizens to pay for upkeep – usually rusts, warps, molders, streaks, gathers “graffartistry” and generally enters decrepitude awkwardly, to say the least, rather than weathering with consummate grace as classical architecture does, with the beauty and dignity of natural aging, much like trees and people.
Civilization preserves the ruins of antiquity for aesthetic as well as historical reasons. Not so with Brutalism and other modern architecture, which requires rationalization, often patently ridiculous, in order to defend expenditures to renovate an old mod icon. Modernist ruins are never preserved, or worth preserving, as ruins. The very idea insults the word, which in this sense of its usage evokes the respectful patina of age.
But perhaps St. Peter’s is already being reused, probably to showcase more recent forms of ugliness. This may be appropriate but it is sad. It would be interesting to debate whether architects or planners are the most to blame for erecting a building like this “for making tender young men into priests,” as Moore put it. A church establishment interested less in the formation of priests and more in asserting its place on the cutting edge may be to blame. And also blame Scotland’s top civic leaders for not squelching the idea in its nest. No, of course planners and architects may shirk the lion’s share of the blame. They are the tools of policy developed at higher levels of society.
Here is a video made by Abandoned Scotland of the seminary. Just below is a lovely photograph of its ruined interior, which appears at flickr.com.