Kilmahew/St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, Scotland: valuable resource from irreversible ruination



St Peter’s Seminary, set over a gorge in an ancient woodland estate, some twenty miles to the west of Glasgow, has long been lauded as one of the greatest works of post-war architecture in Britain. Designed to wrap around a Victorian mansion in the late 1960’s by the renowned architects Andrew MacMillan and Isi Metzstein of Gillespie Kidd and Coia, its dramatic setting, daring concrete structure, and rare combination of space and light make it one of the outstanding surviving examples of experimental post-war architecture in the UK. Recognised as being of international significance, the building was consequently Category ‘A’ listed in 1993.  However, following doctrinal changes in training for the priesthood, St Peter’s was abandoned in 1984.

<p><a href=”″>Debate of the future of St Peters Seminary at the Venice Architectural Biennale 2010</a> from <a href=””>NVA</a&gt; on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Over the last 20 years there have been a series of failed commercial attempts to redevelop the buildings; but each time, the considerable cost of a full restoration or adaptation has not been offset by projected returns. This new proposal addresses the conservation of St Peter’s in a different way, obviating both the costs of a full restoration, and also the difficulties of devising a purely commercial future that would need to be compatible with heritage sensitivities. It is based on a simple, but radical principle: that modern buildings can be partial ruins, can contain histories – can become cultural resources – quite as significant and useful as older, more conventionally ‘historic’ structures.   NVA, a Public Art non-profit organisation based in Glasgow, Scotland, has produced a practical and ambitious public scheme to rescue and re-invigorate Kilmahew/St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. The approach is based on partial restoration and new design, and represents the last chance to save this valuable resource from irreversible ruination.

The consolidated historic buildings, improved path network and new learning pavilion with a programme of events, performance and activities will provide  opportunities for local and community participation and will attract new audiences to Kilmahew. The works will partially restore the stunning chapel within a wider consolidation of the derelict seminary buildings and reinvigorate the surrounding 45 hectare woodland and productive gardens, gradually bringing the site back to life through a wide range of programmed activities. This support represents a defining moment for the imaginative re-use of a public rural space and retention of a 20th century modernist building, many of which have been destroyed in the last 30 years.

cardross3image from St. Peter’s Building Preservation Trust

NVA began working in partnership with the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Strathclyde on the ‘Invisible College’, a research network which aims to radically reinvent the college’s original teaching function for the present day. The ‘The Invisible College’ scheme proposes rehabilitating the main seminary building as a ‘raw’ space, plus the introduction of a new building in the walled garden which will act as a hub for community projects. There will be restoration of paths and landscape, and accommodation for new vehicular access.  This film documents the responses of local school children and community members during the first community open day NVA held on site at Kilmahew/St Peter’s.

Kilmahew/St Peter’s from NVA on Vimeo.

Benefits for people:

This proposal has been developed in conjunction with a new educational idea.  Echoing the experimental networks of the early scientific revolution and Patrick Geddes’ summer schools in nineteenth century Edinburgh, the Invisible College convenes diverse members whose skills, whether academic, artistic, professional, local or personal can contribute to our developing understanding of the history and the future potential of the buildings and site. It is proposed that St Peter’s Seminary, and the landscape that surrounds it will become the permanent base for the Invisible College and provide facilities for an annual programme delivered through strategic programming with partner institutions and nationally recognised organisations.

Tahira Nasim, Local Resident:
‘Quite aside from rescuing St Peter’s seminary, the ecological improvements and constructive re-use of Kilmahew estate is very exciting. The sheer diversity of plans for the area will turn this neglected patch into a rich and useful resource. For so long, local people who remember the seminary and estate have hoped something might be done to improve the derelict buildings but nothing has ever come close to being achieved until now.’

A working landscape will be created – a place to do things and be involved in generating the site’s future. The collective actions that will bring Kilmahew / St Peter’s back to fruition will take many years, but every step has value in the site’s transformation from its current state of glorious abandonment.

Public quotes:

‘The site always has a sense that you can always find something new. It has a sense of mystery.

‘I like the wild, unspoiled nature of the grounds without the formality of signs. It’s a place of discovery in an age of spoon-fed recreation.’

‘I see the young enjoying the adventure. I hope that this adventure aspect will not be lost in any plans.’

cardross2image from St. Peter’s Building Preservation Trust

Reinstating the landscape:

In the surrounding grounds of the 144 acre estate, the reinstatement of basic services, simple refurbishment of the Victorian walled gardens and securing of the historic landscape with woodland walks will open up the park to wider daily use and community led activities.  erz Landscape Architects have drawn up a masterplan for the site – led by landscape architect erz, working with architect Avanti, the proposal won the Neighbourhood Planning category in the 2012 Landscape Institute Awards.


‘The project represents a fresh response to the longstanding challenge of securing a viable future for the derelict modernist masterpiece of St Peter’s Seminary, set within the 133 acre Kilmahew Estate landscape in Cardross, registered as one of the World Monument Fund’s most endangered cultural landmarks. Instead of focusing exclusively on the building, it considers this remarkable building and its landscape setting together, creating a public landscape that becomes a locus for an ongoing creative process, with the ongoing creative and educational programme realised through the ‘Invisible College’. In this way the landscape leads the regeneration. The aim is, in every possible respect, to shift people’s relationship to the landscape from one of being a passive observer or detached consumer to having an active physical or intellectual engagement. The judges commented: ‘erz has put forward a scheme that draws on a unique, exciting and innovative approach to landscape architecture. It makes the reader think and reflect, and pushes the discipline forward.’ Landscape Institute.

Rolf Roscher, ERZ Landscape Architects:
‘The HLF funding is a major step forward in the longstanding challenge of securing a viable future for the derelict modernist masterpiece of St Peter’s seminary, registered as one of the World Monument Fund’s most endangered cultural landmarks. The plan considers the remarkable building and its 45 hectare woodland setting together, creating a public resource that aims is to shift people’s relationship to the landscape from one of being a passive observer or detached consumer to having an active physical or intellectual engagement.’

cardross photo © Adrian Welch

Further reading

Earlier Research –

  • In 1972 filmmaker Murray Grigor celebrated the life of St Peter’s in Space and Light, a 24 minute film. He returned to the now ruined site in 2009 with Oscar-nominated cinematographer McGarvey to film an exact shot-for-shot remake. Space and Light Revisited was screened at the Biennale di Venezia’s 2010 International Architecture Exhibition
  • As part the Venice programme, a group of academics, artists and architects were invited to discuss the historical context and the future possibilities for St Peter’s.  You can read reflections on NVA’s work on St Peters’ from Gordon Murray of Gordon Murray Architects / Strathclyde University, who moderated the discussion, and fellow contributor Edward Hollis, Edinburgh-based architect, educator, and writer.




  1. Pingback: St Peter’s Seminary: Manifesto for Landscape Intervention | Landscape Interface Studio

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