Scotland’s Festival of Architecture 2016 is under way with the opening event, Hinterland, setting the tone for a year of spectacular events celebrating the country’s overwhelming strengths in this field.
Hinterland saw one of Scotland’s most impressive modernist buildings open up to the public for the first time in 30 years. St Peter’s Seminary just outside Helensburgh has been sitting in a ruinous state, since closing in the late 1980s after serving as a training ground for Catholic priests for just 13 years. Devised by public arts organisation NVA, Hinterland was the last chance to see the seminary in its last days as a glorious ruin, before it is transformed into a £4.2 million national platform for public art and heritage.
The sell-out event took place over 10 consecutive nights in March. Audience members met at a central meeting point and were then bused to the site and handed a light up walking stick upon arrival (much lightsaber re-enactment ensued!). You could then walk through the building at your own pace and reflect upon the architecture – the unusualness and possibilities of the space. This was all accompanied by a light installation and soundscapes which subtly complemented but never overwhelmed the building (in fairness, nothing could overwhelm a building like this). There was one set piece in the large central area of the building, which evoked the original purpose of the building, as two people undertook rituals whilst carrying incense.
No modern ruin is complete without graffiti and there was plenty here – of varying quality. I love the idea of graffiti artists travelling to Helensburgh and discovering this palace of opportunity. It must also be a location scout’s dream, as it could provide a unique spot for filming across a variety of film genres.
For me, I was taken by the harshness of the building – the coldness of the concrete, the vastness of the space. I couldn’t imagine any furniture of any era ever adorning this space. But at the same time, I was astounded by the daring of the design, the beauty of the undulating roof, the poetic feel of the floating balcony over the trees, which on a sunny day must have provided the perfect spot in which to reflect upon the meaning of life. If the architects were trying to provide future priests with an environment that would have the dual purpose of inspiring contemplation whilst keeping them grounded to the values and hardships of a consecrated life, then they hit the brief.
This was a truly unique evening, as devised by NVA, who are masters at creating unusual and dynamic public art within extraordinary natural and built heritage sites. I hope that the building thrives in its next life as an arts space. Whatever purpose the building serves in future years, I am sure that its original life as a monastery will continue to echo throughout.