Some books are fairly ephemeral things: picked up, read, enjoyed or not and discarded. Other books have a more lasting value. And a few are truly significant, capturing their subject so comprehensively and with such authority that you know they will remain essential works of reference for the foreseeable future. "St Peter's, Cardross: Birth, Death and Renewal" by Diane M. Watters is a fine example of that last type of book. It tells the story of Cardross Seminary, or St Peter's College, and it tells it so well that it is impossible to imagine anyone needing to tell it again. Yes, the story of its "renewal" is not yet complete, and will need updating in the future, but from now on no-one is ever going to be able to tell the story of the "birth" and the "death" of the seminary without leaning very heavily indeed on this truly amazing book.
They say that size isn't everything, and it is true that big books are not necessarily always good books. But this one is both, and the imposing physical size is part of what allows it to do its job so well. The author takes a historian's measured and considered approach to telling us the story of the seminary. Its origins are set against the background of the demographics of west central Scotland in the decades after World War Two; and against the background of the development of Scottish and world architecture over the same period. We then move on to explore the story of the architects; the design and construction; the use of the seminary during its short 14 year active life; the reasons for its decline and demise; and its salvaging and possible future uses. These sections, making up the first three quarters of the book, are superbly illustrated with photographs and plans and are worth the cover price alone.
They are followed by a section contributed by Angus Farquhar, the Creative Director of Glasgow-based NVA, on possible futures for what remains of the seminary. This comes complete with a magnificent 54 page "image essay" which makes full use of the book's large format to present a stunning collection of recent images showing the sad state the seminary had reached before efforts began to reclaim it, and the results to date of those efforts.
The reader - this reader, at least - emerges from the book with a sense of wonder, both at the scale of what has been achieved by the authors and that such a truly ill-starred building could ever have seen the light of day. Diane M. Watters takes an objective and balanced approach to the story of the birth and death of the seminary. But what emerges seems to suggest that as a seminary, St Peter's College was little short of a complete disaster. It was conceived as a response to a growing Roman Catholic population in west central Scotland, just at the point at which the rate of growth of that population diminished dramatically. It was conceived as a means of training priests for the Roman Catholic Church, but completed just after the Second Vatican Council made fundamental changes to the way the priesthood would in future be trained which seriously undermined the building's rationale. And it was built in a modernist, brutalist style that, at best, sharply divided opinion. The result was a building far too large and far too expensive to run; which had poor sound insulation and heating problems; and whose core, its chapel, was no longer suitable for the purpose to which it was put. And, in a country not renowned for a constantly benign climate, it failed to keep the rain out. The author reports that at one point during the winter of 1967, heavy rain revealed fifty-three leaks in one small part of the building alone, with many more elsewhere.
What do you do with a building variously described as both Scotland's best 20th century building and its worst? A building viewed by many as of world significance and given the highest level of listing, yet at the same time a building now stripped of the Baronial mansion around which it was wrapped (which was demolished following a fire long after abandonment) that means it can never be "complete" again? It's an intriguing question, and as yet an incompletely answered one. But while opinions might differ widely about the merits of the building that is the subject of this book, it is beyond doubt that the book itself is little short of a masterpiece.