To Have and To Hold: Future of a Contested Landscape

The description here far exceeds that of just the book, as my involvement in this interesting project stretched further (and therefore also some additional images).

I’d worked with NVA, an environmental art agency, based in Glasgow, before; first on Radiance, Glasgow’s first Festival of Light (in 2005), and a year later on Glow, a similar festival in Newcastle/Gateshead.

Screen shot 2013-05-05 at 16.10.50Angus Farquhar, NVA’s artistic director, first told me about Kilmahew and St. Peter’s in the summer of 2008. By then almost thirty years had passed since St. Peter’s Seminary – designed by Gillespie, Kidd & Coia and located on the Kilmahew estate between the villages of Renton and Cardross in West Scotland – lost its function an was left to the elements. The juxtaposition of an infamous twentieth-century-ruin, noted as Scotland’s ‘greatest modernist building’, sited within a ‘romantic’ Victorian designed landscape has resulted in a tension which is both exciting and thought provoking. Angus and NVA were planning to do something with this long-abandoned and almost forgotten site. Would I be interested in contributing to some kind of commissioning plan for it?

In the next year and a half I worked with Angus, and Rolf Roscher, his close collaborator on this project, from landscape design firm Erz, on the development of a commissioning plan. However, rather than exactly stating what NVA intended to do with the woodland and the buildings it harboured, we ended up with something that was more a statement of intent, and developed the rationale for a considered approach to a possible engagement with the landscape as a whole.

4d5a6d5eThis ‘plan’ became the basis for a debate organised during the Architecture Biennale in Venice in November 2010. A group of academics, artists, writers, architects and landscape architects gathered in the Italian city to discuss the historical background and the future potential for the site. The book that I was subsequently invited to put together aimed to further engage with questions of how we deal with history and heritage, conservation and preservation, ownership and decision-making around contested sites in the twenty-first century.

The challenge in this process was to not just capture what was discussed in Venice, and rather than provide a structured blue print for St. Peter’s to keep all possibilities open. Following on from the original commissioning plan, the idea was to not merely focus on preserving the buildings, but imagining it as a landscape in which new narratives slowly can be woven and emerge over time. In the end several speakers from Venice were invited to expand on their thinking by writing a new text (or use their brief presentation in Venice as a basis for further exploration), while a series of well-selected excerpts from the Venice debate were grouped around key topics. To make the book and project at large accessible for those not familiar with the site, it also contains an abbreviated history, a wide range of images, an updated version of the commissioning plan, and a conversation between Angus Farquhar and Ed Hollis.

Withtohavetohold contributions by John Allan (restoration architect), Emma Cocker (writer, Senior Lecturer Fine Art), Angus Farquhar (artistic director NVA), Ian Gilzean (Chief Architect Directorate for the Built Environment Scotland), Edward Hollis (writer and Lecturer Interior Design), Tilman Latz (landscape architect), Hayden Lorimer (writer and Senior Lecturer Cultural Geography), Gordon Murray (principal Gordon Murray Architects), Jane Rendell (writer and Director Architectural Research at the Bartlett), Rolf Roscher (landscape architect, director of Erz ltd.) and an introduction by myself.

The book was launched during the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2011.


Plans for the site have continued to develop via, among other things, the research project The Invisible College. Published by NVA / Luath Press Ltd, designed by by Susie Simmons.

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