Art Therapy – bringing St Peter’s Seminary back to life

The ziggurat arrangement of the upper floors meant that the internal corridors serving the cells upstairs had views over the chapel and refectory below
The ziggurat arrangement of the upper floors meant that the internal corridors serving the cells upstairs had views over the chapel and refectory below

Meanwhile NVA, an organisation with a reputation for creating large-scale public artworks and happenings, had been working on its own plans, harnessing a mix of public and private funds to partially restore the building as a cultural venue. It was given the site the same year that Urban Splash withdrew. 'The Church realised that we were the last chance for this building,' claims Farquhar. NVA drew up a 20-year masterplan, working with Avanti Architects, NORD Architecture and ERZ Landscape Architects, drawing inspiration from such projects as Berlin's Neues Museum, aiming to retain the spirit of ruin.

It is worth visiting just to see the huge variety of graffiti that adorns almost every surface
It is worth visiting just to see the huge variety of graffiti that adorns almost every surface

The overall approach is democratic and multifaceted, encompassing education, public involvement, art and performance while providing an insight into the architecture and the people who lived and worked there. Manifold initiatives range from restoring the estate's Victorian walled gardens with the assistance of local residents, to creating a new Agora-style people's assembly. Says Farquhar: 'It will be a place to generate ideas as well as see art, a place to come and participate and be challenged.'

It is worth visiting just to see the huge variety of graffiti that adorns almost every surface
It is worth visiting just to see the huge variety of graffiti that adorns almost every surface

There is the inevitable debate about how best to go about restoration, a common thread through projects as diverse as the Neues Museum, the nearby Mackintosh Library at Glasgow School of Art, and Clandon Park in Surrey. 'The restoration asks lots of big questions, about whether its new productive afterlife can be as rich as its period of decay. A large part of the myth surrounding the building was that it was derelict,' Croft says.

There was excitement in it being discovered, the thrill of trespass. 'There's the feeling that by clearing it up, do we lose the romance? The last thing we want is it to become the presentation of a monastery by the Ministry of Works, with neatly clipped lawns and concrete strips marking where walls used to be.'

It is worth visiting just to see the huge variety of graffiti that adorns almost every surface
It is worth visiting just to see the huge variety of graffiti that adorns almost every surface

Farquhar promises that the end result will 'resist becoming institutionalised'. He is also in no doubt that those who advocate leaving the buildings to gently decay are wrong. This winter, emergency fundraising was required to save almost 100 barrel vaults from collapse. 'There is a lack of recognition of just how dangerous the building was; there were accidents waiting to happen,' he says. It is also unlikely that remains of the building would have outlasted the next decade, Farquhar believes.

'We couldn't allow it to drift on. That option didn't exist.' There was also a great deal of hazardous asbestos to deal with, the subject of its own major fundraising effort. 'It was truly everywhere and coating every surface. It really was bad,' Farquhar says. 'We felt it was our moral responsibility to get it clean and get the asbestos out.'

It is worth visiting just to see the huge variety of graffiti that adorns almost every surface
It is worth visiting just to see the huge variety of graffiti that adorns almost every surface

For the opening of Hinterland, rhododendrons infesting the site have been uprooted and a deep layer of debris removed from the buildings, revealing new perspectives on the architecture. 'It has revealed an incredible sharpness of line,' Farquhar observes. 'The quality of the concrete is amazing.

They really knew how to pour concrete in Scotland.' Experts have given the concrete a clean bill of health. 'While almost all of the building's "soft tissue", such as timber, plasterwork, glazing and finishes, has been lost or damaged beyond retrieval, the basic structural carcass and characteristic concrete cladding is surprisingly sound,' says Allan.

Contractors have spent a sodden winter making the building safe for visitors, including the installation of semi-permanent parapet rails
Contractors have spent a sodden winter making the building safe for visitors, including the installation of semi-permanent parapet rails

Those construction workers busy making the building safe for visitors express polarised views of the building. Some have grown to love its uncompromising forms, others remain steadfast in their loathing, reinforced by working there through a long and arduous winter, one of the wettest on record. Farquhar relishes that this can be a difficult building to love. 'I like the fact that lots of people hate this building, it's a strong emotion.' Unpicking the ideology behind the architecture, exploring what makes it aesthetically challenging, these are all themes that can be harnessed in NVA's programme for the building. 'St Peter's is a useful vehicle to bring these ideas to the fore. It invites you to think,' says Farquhar. Croft sees its rehabilitation as reflecting changing attitudes to brutalist architecture, at a time when many key examples have been lost while others are fatally threatened, such as Robin Hood Gardens in East London. 'St Peter's is an important barometer,' she says.

Hinterland will provide a tantalising teaser of the building's future. The next phase of works, due to start this autumn for completion in 2018, will see further consolidation of the site and the creation of a series of indoor, outdoor and semi-enclosed spaces for performance, art, learning and visitor hospitality. The juxtaposition of restored elements, new interventions and those left in ruin will transform St Peter's into a building in dialogue with itself.

Graffiti in the crypt, located underneath the sanctuary
Graffiti in the crypt, located underneath the sanctuary

At the heart of the plans is transformation of the chapel/ sanctuary into a 600-capacity venue. A few of the glulam beams spanning the sanctuary remain, some scorched by fire. They originally supported a distinctive ziggurat rooflight, now entirely lost, which theatrically cast ever-changing shadows on the sanctuary's curved rear wall. 'It would have been a truly ineffable, spiritual experience,' says Farquhar. He sees this part of the building as his holy grail, to be restored into a wind-and-watertight space.

Allan explains that sufficient documentation of the original pyramidal glazed lantern remains to enable its reconstruction. 'This feature is crucial to the recovery of the dramatic effects of light and shadow that enlivened the chapel interior,' he adds.

Farquhar will learn whether the next batch of funding bids are successful midway through Hinterland's run. As a result, 'the event will either be a huge celebration or a funeral,' he says.

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