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20 Dec 2004
“Passion can create drama out of pure stone,” said a relatively young Le Corbusier in “Towards a New Architecture” in 1923, and this desire to find the emotive, even the spiritual, qualities in architecture burned throughout his career. When I visited his hilltop cathedral at Ronchamp, I was so gobsmacked by the drama of the building that I wept in front of the altar. Afterwards, I realised that Corb’s emphasis on technology was not an end in itself, but a means to achieving the same drama in popular housing that he thought had previously only been achieved in cathedrals.
If an emotional rush is an index of great architecture then the seminary at Cardross strikes gold. To wander through the forest and happen upon this building that is in the horrific process of collapsing is to be confronted by a metonym for post-war architecture in Glasgow. It’s simultaneously ecstatic and dumbfounding: all of the ambition, experimentation and, ultimately, a client-side failure of nerve are there to behold. (Changes in attitudes at the Vatican may have precipitated the building’s closure as a seminary, but the Archdiocese of Scotland signally failed to maintain it thereafter.) Approach from the lower end of the building and an audacious cantilevered volume towers above you, thrusting its square chin out, and offering residents the perfect means of staring over the treetops at God. Surely Rem Koolhaas was aware of this great architectural moment when he designed his Bordeaux house. Climb through the hole in the seminary’s security fencing and you find yourself inside the main block, dominated by a large central hall. Perhaps it’s because of the building’s desolate state that it is immediately reminiscent of Ronchamp. Where Corb’s roof is raised slightly to allow in a chink of light round the entire perimeter, the seminary’s roof has partly collapsed, allowing light and rain to pour into the main volume. But beautifully preserved concrete staircases climb their way through the other end of the space, their exquisite shuttering betraying just how recently it was built.
Cardross has parallels with the story of the Citroen DS. One of the greatest cars of all time, it bankrupted its owner: the original hydraulic fluid, which swept passengers along on a ride of revolutionary quality, happened to be so corrosive that it literally ate the cars away from within. Not long after the model was eventually withdrawn from manufacture in 1973, Citroen resolved unofficially that the sooner all DSs were off the road, the better. But for me, the car’s innovations were much more meaningful than its weaknesses, even when the AA man was struggling to winch my car onto the breakdown truck. In 1991 I co-curated an exhibition about the DS at the Design Museum in London. Alongside the shining, beautifully preserved examples, we wanted to exhibit a wreck that had been sitting in a forest for years, with moss growing on its roof, and oxidisation creeping across its chrome brightwork. The Design Museum wasn’t having it; for them, design was about form (and consumption) and they weren’t prepared to accept that decay and over-use could enhance our appreciation of a design.
But that’s exactly the way it is with the seminary, which was commissioned in 1958 (just three years after the DS was launched) and abandoned by its owners in 1980. Though I’m passionately in favour of its restoration, I find it stunning just as it is.
Ultimately, if the building was flawed, it seems to have been at the level of engineering and construction rather than design, with concrete pouring techniques that were just too ambitious for the West Coast climate. It is ironic then, that Isi Metzstein and Andy McMillan’s masterpiece joyfully flew in the face of one of Corb’s most enduring claims: “The engineer’s aesthetic and architecture are two things that march together and follow one from the other; the one being now at its full height, the other in an unhappy state of retrogression.”
Nick Barley is editor of The List
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