Review: Hinterland, St Peter’s Seminary, Argyll






Reviewed by Mark Brown


NVA's Hinterland photo Alaisdair Smith  (4)
Photo: Alaisdair Smith


For the last two decades Glasgow-based public art specialists NVA have been making spectacular interventions in the built and natural environment throughout the UK and internationally. Their work ranges from Storr, which brought extraordinary new life to the crags and crevices of The Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye, to Speed of Light, an acclaimed celebration of cycling and the urban landscape that has wowed audiences in Salford and Yokohama, among other cities.

In this, the year of Scotland’s Festival of Architecture, NVA offer a remarkable reflection on one of the world’s most recent, and most fascinating, ruins. The St Peter’s Seminary building, set in the midst of the Kilmahew Estate in Argyll and Bute, was opened in 1966 but only served its function as a training centre for Roman Catholic priests for 13 years.

These days the magnum opus of architects Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein sits, hidden from the nearby Clyde Estuary by the forest of Kilmahew, like a ghost of concrete Modernism. Its external, columned staircases could have been borrowed from a misguided inner-city housing estate. Its grey arches evoke both 20th-century Brutalism and the beautiful, Islamic geometry of the Mezquita in Córdoba, which dates back more than a thousand years.

Creative director Angus Farquhar’s night-time production is like an avant-garde version of a French son et lumière show. Following a short walk through a sonically enchanted forest, we are ushered into the Seminary.

NVA's Hinterland, Image Alaisdair Smith 5
Photo: Alasdair Smith

Light bounces off the building’s grafittied walls. Fragments of architectural plans shimmer above the fallen stone crucifix.

And there, in the central hall, reflected in the water of a floor which has become a shallow pool, swings a great, industrial thurible. It emanates smoke as if it were a religious relic, yet it has the appearance of something that could have been made in one of the now closed shipyards on the other bank of the estuary.

The censer is pushed by two masked figures who, like sinister, post-industrial masters of ceremony, are wearing overalls and hard hats. Rory Boyle’s music and Alistair MacDonald’s soundscapes combine to create a sense of the sacred and the premonitory.

Hinterland is like a visit to a temple of post-apocalyptic religion. Remarkably, however, it is also a memorable celebration of the enduring beauty of a derelict architectural masterpiece.

Runs until March 27. Details:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 20, 2016

© Mark Brown


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