Edward Hollis’s book The Secret Lives of Buildings, about famous buildings that ‘went wrong’, informed a change of attitudes about the fate of one of Scotland’s most controversial buildings.
Buildings considered ‘masterpieces’ usually attract efforts to restore or preserve them in their supposed original state. In times of economic constraint, the idea that great architectural works should be ‘frozen in time’ presents a challenge. It affects not only those working in historic preservation and urban development, but also the communities who live with these buildings day to day.
St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, twenty miles west of Glasgow, was built in 1961 and abandoned in 1986. Despite being described as ‘a building of world significance’, it lies ruined. Proposals for its future have focused on the idea that the site is valueless in its current condition. The only options considered have been full restoration or total demolition.
Building on ideas from his book, Hollis has offered new and unique insights into the value of St Peter’s.
The Secret Lives of Buildings was written as a series of case studies. Instead of representing each historical period by an account of their building styles, such as ‘classical’ or ‘gothic’, Hollis took a new approach. He used folk tales about change, including ‘ruination’ (the Parthenon), ‘restoration’ (Notre Dame) and ‘prophecy’ (Hulme housing estate, Manchester). The book showed how great buildings are always incomplete, or always changing. This, he argued, is the key to their cultural capital.
As a result of the book, Hollis was invited to take part in a debate about St Peter’s Seminary, organised as part of Scotland’s contribution to the prestigious Venice Biennale architecture festival in 2010. Following this, the Invisible College research network was set up. This is a collaboration between arts charity NVA, Hollis and academics from the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. It looks at how to reconnect the different communities that have an interest in St Peter’s.
Hollis promoted the value of St Peter’s, not as a fixed architectural object, but as a process of dereliction and regeneration. He has shown that the site’s cultural capital was not lost when it was abandoned. Instead, this has actually enhanced the site. Understanding the process of its abandonment is key to the future redevelopment of the site.
Reaching a wide audience
Translated into five languages, The Secret Lives of Buildings has appealed to a wide range of readers. It received positive critical reviews, and was nominated for The Guardian First Book Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Published in seven countries, it has sold over 17,000 copies worldwide. Hollis has spoken about the book at literary festivals, in several interviews with the BBC, and with international broadcasters.
The Invisible College
Through his work with the Invisible College, Hollis has shared his ideas with many people, from international architectural fans to local residents. In open workshops, participants had the chance to ‘act out’ some of the processes of building alteration described in The Secret Lives of Buildings. This included identifying places of safety in the ruins of buildings (Safe as Houses, June 2012) and predicting the future of the site over five days to five centuries (The Fortune Tellers, March 2012).
The future of St Peter’s seminary
Local residents have started to care for, and benefit from, the landscape around the building. Vandalism has decreased and local interest and activity in the site have grown.
One of the most significant impacts has been a change in Historic Scotland’s opinion of St Peter’s. They now agree that its value does not depend on it being restored to its original state, as its previous listing by them (Category A) implied.
The Scottish Government, the Caram Trust and Historic Scotland awarded funding for the NVA to purchase the site. They are now working to transform St Peter’s into an Invisible College ‘field station’ in the arts for researchers and the public. The regeneration of St Peter’s has promoted the argument of The Secret Lives of Buildings: that ruins can be more than just relics of history. They can perform new functions and be meaningful in people’s daily lives again.