The Stockard Report: Hinterland

Jim Stockard (LF ’78 and former Loeb curator) is reporting in from time to time from his perch at the Glasgow School of Art this semester. His recent adventure involves a Loeb alum, brutalist architecture and incense. 

Imagine receiving an e-mail, the essence of which is “Wanna wander around in the woods after dark and look at a lit-up abandoned modernist seminary while you listen to some mysterious music?” In most cases, I would advise you to hit “delete.” But, if the message is from Helen Marriage (LF’13), then you should say “yes,” and prepare to be amazed.

After I responded to a similar email, on the Tuesday (see how I am learning to speak Scottish) Helen flew up from London to stay with Sue and me at our place in Glasgow. The main purpose was to see an installation at St. Peter’s Seminary. But, of course, I took advantage of Helen’s presence and got her to give a wee (more Scottish) talk about her work–a talk which amazed our students. They have never seen anything like Helen’s “urban disruptions.” Then Helen and I had tea at the Willow Tea Rooms, one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s lovely spaces in downtown Glasgow.

That night Sue and Helen and I were joined by my colleague Brian Evans and his wife, Sue, for dinner and our adventure. We started by taking a 40 minute train ride out to Helensburgh, a Glasgow suburb. Arriving at the train station around 20:00, we wandered down the dark, abandoned streets to the harbor. There we were met by busses that took us on the next leg of the journey: 15 minutes of suburban roads, then narrow lanes, and then through a canopy of old trees to our disembarking place. In mostly silence, we were given walking sticks–4 feet long, with a light at the bottom so that we could find our way along the wooded path. The woods were very dark. Almost the only thing we could see was these lights scattered through the forest as fellow pilgrims wound their way up the hill. Next the haunting music began. At first it was far off in the woods, then closer. And as we turned a corner, massive architecture began to emerge from the spidery branches of the dark forest.

St. Peter’s Seminary was built between 1961 and 1966 to house 100 Roman Catholic priests-in-training. Just as it was finished, seminary attendance began to decline and Vatican II declared that priests should be trained “in the community” rather than in isolated sites in the countryside. As a result, this massive modernist structure was never full and was actually only open for 14 years. It was designed by Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan of the firm of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia. Isi and Andy are two of Glasgow’s best known architects after the aforementioned Mr. Mackintosh. Now the buildings have sat mostly vacant for over 35 years.

As we made our way through the dark and shadowy corridors with constantly changing lights, we got a vision of remarkable spaces, intriguing corridors, and extremely muscular architecture, all in ruin. The most powerful form is the barrel vault, which forms almost all the ceilings. We wound our way up spiral staircases, along stark hallways and over roofless ramps. Then we emerged into a very large space,the central chapel. The roof is gone so the floor is full of water, creating a mirror that made the visual images all the more powerful. In the center of the space hangs a huge thurible (two extra points if you know what that is–I didn’t). It swung ponderously from side to side, spraying smoke as it moved. It must be 20 feet high. And the music continued. And the lighting changed: now we are in the dark; now each side chapel is lit with a different color; now the lights are flashing. And the music only added to the mystery. We continued on through the rest of the seminary, seeing other spaces and views. There is, of course, a riot of graffiti, or, as Roger Cummings (LF’09) has tutored me, aerosol painting. As we made our way back down the hill to the bus, it felt like we had been in another world.

The artist who has done this, Angus Farquhar, is a friend of Helen’s, of course. This group of people who have such huge visions that entertain, challenge, and educate us is small (Jim Lasko–LF’ 13–has a membership card), and many of them know each other. For Helen this was a busman’s holiday. But a sign of how her energy continues is that she seemed as amazed and entertained as we were.

The purpose of this installation is to educate the public about this highly regarded mid-century modern structure, and to begin to raise money for its renovation. On the very day that we went to see Hinterland, the newspapers reported that the restoration effort had received a £4.5 million grant to seed the work.

Sue and I are thrilled that we said “yes” to Helen’s invitation. This was a mesmerizing and inspirational experience. Wish you were all here.

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