About Le Corbusier- taken from Dillon, B, 2009. ‘The spaceship’ [Online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/feb/14/le-corbusier-architecture-cardross [Accessed 4th December 2010]
By Charlotte Rowley
It shows that Le Corbusier’s work is still being used in architecture today.
Le Corbusier’s concrete legacy in Britain has been both celebrated and reviled. Brian Dillon visits the vast complex of futuristic rot that was once the seminary of St Peter’s, and finds hope amid the decay
▪ The Guardian, Saturday 14 February 2009
St Peter’s College, Cardross, Scotland photographed shortly after it opened in the 1960s. Photograph: RIBA
Le Corbusier famously built nothing in Britain. His sole commission in this country was to design a temporary exhibition stand for the Venesta Plywood Company, to be erected at the Building Trades Exhibition in 1930. (A single photograph and drawing are all that remain of the structure.) As the decade progressed, however, his thought and practice inspired such domestic masterpieces as Wells Coates’s Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead and Berthold Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool at London Zoo. More vexedly, as a modest photographic annex to the Barbican’s forthcoming Corbusier exhibition reminds us, it was towards Corbusian principles that postwar architects turned to solve Britain’s housing crisis. The sun-drenched monument of his Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, completed in 1952, is the direct precursor to such fraught edifices of the high-rise boom as Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield and Roehampton in London – a concrete legacy that still leaks rancour in certain quarters.
Most of the postwar buildings referred to at the Barbican – itself a late flowering of the Corbusian spirit – are still in use or, like the notorious Ronan Point flat complex in Canning Town, have since been demolished. One structure, though, has had a curious half-life, and persists today as a relic of the architectural heroism of that era. A photograph in the exhibition shows St Peter’s College, a Catholic seminary erected on the banks of the Clyde in the 1960s as a gleaming tribute to late Corbusier. A three-storey concrete ziggurat, almost 200ft long and flanked by silo-like side chapels, rises majestically out of the woods. In the foreground, a curved terminal wall towers elegantly above the main chapel and sanctuary; at the far end, an escape stairs in raw board-formed concrete composes a jagged coda. Seen like this, in its monochrome pomp, St Peter’s is an audacious precis of everything progressive British architects once felt about the legacy of Le Corbusier.
Forty years on, St Peter’s is among the sorriest remnants of Britain’s brief and ambiguous romance with modernism. A half-hour train ride from Glasgow, and a 10-minute walk from the Clydeside village of Cardross, will take you deep into the sodden undergrowth of present attitudes to postwar architecture. The structure, abandoned in the early 1980s, looms as impressively as ever, but its interiors were gutted long ago and its substance has suffered decades of abuse and decay. Penetrate the main block depicted in the photograph at the Barbican, and you discover in its shadow, among the (equally magnificent) outlying buildings, a vast complex of futuristic rot – perhaps the closest Britain currently comes to the post-apocalyptic vision adumbrated by JG Ballard during the dying days of modernism. St Peter’s is a ruin as much of the architectural dreams of its century as of the more localised and equally doomed optimism that brought it into being.
The hopes incarnated at Cardross were raised and dashed with astonishing speed. As Frank Arneil Walker puts it in the volume of The Buildings of Scotland devoted to Argyll and Bute, “in little more than a generation, God, Le Corbusier and Scottish architecture have all been mocked”. The new seminary complex was first mooted in the early 1950s, after fire destroyed the original St Peter’s College at Bearsden and student priests were relocated to Kilmahew House, a baronial pile on the outskirts of Cardross. In 1953, the local diocese, anticipating a continued influx of seminarians and consequent pressure on the premises available, engaged the Glasgow firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia to design a set of buildings in which to house and train more than a hundred students. As with many of the ecclesiastical projects that the firm completed in this period – there are extant churches, somewhat reminiscent of St Peter’s, at Kilsyth, East Kilbride and Drumchapel – design of the seminary was entrusted to Isi Metzstein and Andrew MacMillan, two young architects entranced by the postwar buildings of Le Corbusier.
It was the Swiss architect’s chapel at Ronchamp, completed in 1955, and his monastery at La Tourette, which opened four years later, that particularly inspired MacMillan and Metzstein. Traces of both buildings are everywhere at Cardross. The monumental main block takes its cue from La Tourette, though at St Peter’s the bunker-like profile has been softened by stepping back successive storeys behind circulating balconies. The undercroft entrance to the college complex recalls the way that La Tourette seems to hover on its concrete pilotis; but it is the adjacent classroom building, extravagantly cantilevered above the trees, that properly echoes the soaring, aspirant qualities of the French monastery. A small concrete block, modelled after the lower storeys of the main residential and chapel building, nurses a huddle of mini-Ronchamps: a rounded common room, kitchen and refectory randomly dotted with small windows.
It is often, at St Peter’s, such details that reveal the Corbusian heritage of the place. Inside the convent, curved wooden ceilings rose to embrace light from above, as beneath the concrete roof at Ronchamp. The glazed walls of the ground floor in the main building were randomly mullioned, as at La Tourette, while the fire escape is an angular twin to Le Corbusier’s at Marseille. But St Peter’s is (or was) not exactly a rigorous repurposing of Corbusian structures and motifs. The towering side chapels to the main building – five on each side – had their cruise-ship cowls clad so as to harmonise with the sandstone of Kilmahew House, which stood at the centre of the site. (The house, once the administrative hub of the seminary, was demolished after a fire in 1995.) The interiors to all of the buildings were generously panelled in solid wood or veneer, so that the whole seems to hark back also to the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In sum, St Peter’s was both of its time architecturally and sufficiently eclectic and traditional not to startle the diocesan authorities too much. Still, students were apt to refer to it as “the spaceship”.
‘The home should be the treasure chest of living.’ Le Corbusier from the webpage – http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/le_corbusier.html [Accessed 4th December 2010] [Online]
This quote relates to now because people do have ‘treasures’ in their homes to live with e.g TV’s/computers/DVD players/gaming machines.
The ‘Le Corbusier Chaise Lounge chair’ is still being sold around the world for example at alibaba.com – http://www.alibaba.com/product-gs/274030593/Le_Corbusier_Chaise_Lounger.html [Online] [Accessed 4th December 2010]
also -‘ Le Corbusier Sofa, Designer Retro Furniture [EUROPE]’ at alibaba.com – http://www.alibaba.com/product-tp/107648490/Le_Corbusier_Sofa_Designer_Retro_Furniture.html
[Online] [Accessed 4th December 2010]