Setting to work on a modern ruin: investigating the future of St Peter’s Seminary at Kilmahew
December 23, 2015 6 Comments
“There is no place like it, 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.”
St Peter’s-Kilmahew (SPK) located in Argyll, Scotland, is a place rich in narratives of human settlement. Originally a sacred landscape associated with an early Christian saint, then the woodland demesne of a medieval castle-keep, during the mid-19th century SPK was transformed into a country estate, with an extensive arboretum and pleasure-gardens encircling a baronial mansion-house. In the 20th century, the entire property was acquired by the Roman Catholic Church, and its designed landscape re-centred on a newly-built seminary complex. St. Peter’s, the striking Modernist building, opened in 1967 to critical acclaim, operated for fifteen years, and was then abandoned by the Church. Since the 1980s, the entire site has fallen ever deeper into a condition of charismatic ruination. The seminary structure remains iconic, internationally celebrated but controversial; it has been subject to repeated calls for complete demolition and campaigns for full restoration; but until very recently, SPK has frustrated all such attempts to ‘fix’ its future.
However, since 2010, detailed plans for occupying the site as a ‘transitional ruin’ have been developed by NVA, Scotland’s leading public arts charity (www.nva.org.uk). Presently, SPK is being readied for its latest transition: from a ruin into its inverse: a construction site. NVA’s radical plan to stabilise the ruined structure and open out the abandoned estate landscape has been granted £3 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with an additional £0.5 million backing secured from Creative Scotland. Over the next six years, dereliction will be thrown into reverse, with SPK becoming simultaneously charismatic ruin and construction site. Phased works are scheduled to begin in 2016, with completion projected for 2022 when SPK will be fully accessible for public, educational and artistic use, as a stabilised ruin and redesigned cultural landscape.
I’m excited to announce that I’m part of an AHRC grant bid submitted earlier this week seeking funding for a three year study of the stabilisation and repurposing of this iconic site. The intended project would enable a multi-disciplinary team of researchers to conduct a ‘live’ study of the transformation of this ruin site into a future facing community, arts and heritage venue. The bid is led by Ed Hollis (Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art), supported by Prof Hayden Lorimer (Historical & Cultural Geography, University of Glasgow) and me (Law & the Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University).
The project aims to explore how approaches derived from arts and humanities research can productively valorise sites in transition, opening up areas which are conventionally screened away or fenced off from public view. The project’s key concerns are:
- how can processes of ruin-transformation can be better understood, and more widely engaged with?
- how might the notion of a site’s ‘closure’ during building work be challenged via the collaborative design of experimental landscape interventions?
- how can this be done within a context of ensuring the safety of all concerned?
This investigation will be pursued via three interlinked work packages, that reflect the three disciplinary perspectives of the investigators:
- What are the risks surrounding processes of material change in relation to human health and safety and how are these governed? How do common law and/or legislative frameworks construct this risk and liability, and how might policy be developed to allow more scope for public access to heritage sites in transition?
- How can artists, designers and architects work collaboratively with heritage sites that are in process? How can creative interventions harness processes of change, engage communities, and challenge regulatory frameworks to revise traditional models of heritage preservation predicated on the prevention of material change?
- How do stakeholders in historic sites engage in the contested processes of redevelopment and ruination? For example, through participation in decision-making, public debates, community art and archiving, acts of protest, remembrance, forgiveness and forgetting?
The project will explore these questions simultaneously, but with high degree of cross-over, as (for example) our findings on risk and liability influence the commissioning of the onsite creative interventions and vice versa. Thus through multiple methods of investigation, and through its combination of ethnographic, archival, design and regulatory perspectives and its engagement with local community, professional and policy stakeholders the project will develop a rich range of outputs, spanning scholarly collaborations, creative commissions and a practice-focussed interpretive toolkit, with all of these aimed at inspiring and facilitating more creative, and inclusive, engagements in the future at other sites in transition.
In pursuit of this innovation and our desire to build interpretive common ground and practice for sites in transition, this project will be able to draw upon the experience and perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders who have already affiliated to the bid, including NVA, Scottish Heritage, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the former head of the CBI’s Health & Safety Panel. Through these links our project will uniquely well placed to broker innovative dialogue between publics, creative practitioners (both of whom would like to access sites-in-process) and construction managers whose instinctive reaction (based on a certain overly anxious perceptions of risk and liability) is to close them off to all access.
Our bid presents the SPK works programme as a unique opportunity to investigate in an interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder, live and longitudinal way both how we deal with the emergent ruins of modernist heritage, and how we might better reconcile the difficulties of providing public access to heritage sites which are, inevitably, often in a perpetual state of reconstruction and repair.
If our bid is successful, the research project will commence towards the end of 2016.
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with originators credited there.