Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, 2010.

The cold and leaky masterpieces of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia: modernist churches in Scotland

In April 2010, as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, artist Ally Wallace produced the solo show ‘Modblocks’, to fit the interior architecture of two Modernist ecclesiastical buildings in Glasgow, designed by the architectural firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia: St. Benedict’s Church, Easterhouse, and Our Lady of Good Counsel, Dennistoun.

Pictures of the show are archived at

Leon Robinson interviewed Ally Wallace and produced notes for the exhibition. The works, along with the buildings themselves, provoke a number of ideas and questions about the significance of continuity and change in Church architecture and communities; the potential for buildings to support spiritual experience; the pitfalls of experimental architecture, and the impact (benign and otherwise) of individual preferences of priests on the fabric of church buildings, as well as about the nature and relationship between people of faith, the built environment, and the eternal truths articulated by the Church on one hand, and the secular Modernist movement on the other.

The firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia (particularly Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein) designed and built many Catholic churches in the post war period (e.g. in Glenrothes, East Kilbride, Glasgow), responding to demographic changes taking place in Scotland, and later, to the opportunities presented by the Catholic Church’s willingness to accept radical experimentation in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The post-war construction of new towns relocated many people from inner city Glasgow, which required new churches, as well as new city churches to service the remaining congregations. Gillespie, Kidd & Coia were one of the few practices involved in the building of the new churches.

[The reasons for the firm being so particularly favoured by the church in this period are beyond the scope of this paper]

The firm, and their buildings, were clearly “successful” in terms of awards and recognition, but the question as to whether a modernist style of architecture was the right, or even an appropriate response to the needs of dislocated/relocated families in this period is one which this paper explores.

Did these dislocated families need something more familiar from the Church, particularly in terms of the material surroundings embodied in the new church buildings? Rather than a challenge to their sensibilities, would they have been better served by an anchor in troubled and troubling times? Or was the Modernism of the new churches a suitable reflection of the almost utopian project of post-war slum clearances, and the construction of new towns?

The ambivalent relationship that parishioners have had with the GKC “masterpieces” is well summarised by John Trower in his “history of the building of the new church” (St Patrick’s Kilsyth): “For a long time the parishioners of St Patrick’s have had a love hate relationship with the fabric of their church due mainly to concerns over the practical usability of the church. For many years the building was cold, the roof leaked and the striking modernist design sat uncomfortably on the shoulders of those more used to the familiar friendly features of their old, now demolished, traditional stone built church.” (Trower 2016)

Wallace, however, is unequivocal in his admiration for the buildings. Speaking of Our Lady of Good Counsel in the Dennistoun area of Glasgow: “I like the purity of their original vision… it is absolutely stupendous, despite the fact it has been monkeyed about with over the years. They tend to have this soaring, upwards, impressive dynamic shape, pointing towards heaven. The fact that they’ve been designed to do that gives them a dynamic quality. That’s really quite striking just from a sculptural viewpoint. It’s amazingly atmospheric, the way that they have designed it in this way, it’s still got that feel of cathedral, ancient, tall, lofty, gloomy, roof space you can hardly see up there because it’s so dark… the way they have used light in here is just magnificent.” (Wallace 2010)

“[The sculptures] are shaped in such a way to pick up the daylight coming in through in the windows … they are carefully planned so they will accept the light coming in through the window quite subtlety… The light coming in here is everything…” (ibid)

Duncan Stroik, writing in Adoremus (1997) the Journal for the Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy cited the underlying rationale espoused by the arch-Modernist, Le Corbusier, who held that “a house was a machine for living in. Just as the anthropological, spiritual, and traditional aspects of domus for dwelling and raising a family were stripped away in the “house as a machine for living in”, so would ritual, icon and sacrament be purged from the “church as machine for assembling in.” It is perhaps odd that Le Corbusier seems steeped in a Protestant conception of what the function of a church building is – the sacrament of the Mass is conspicuously absent from his notion of “assembling”.

The short lives of many of GKC’s churches bear witness to a number of contested, problematic issues in architecture, society and the Church. “Modernism [was] the single most important new style or philosophy of architecture and design of the 20th century, associated with an analytical approach to the function of buildings, a strictly rational use of (often new) materials, an openness to structural innovation and the elimination of ornament.” (RIBA, n.d.) This in no way suggests that the Church should reject the movement; if not profoundly relevant, eternal and universal, what is the Church?

Architectural Modernism should be distinguished from the movement towards modifying traditional beliefs in accordance with modern ideas, especially in the Roman Catholic Church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The overlapping timescales and contemporaneous developments in these movements may cause some confusion. According to Abbate Cavallanti, cited in the Catholic Encyclopaedia of 1909): “Modernism is modern in a false sense of the word; it is a morbid state of conscience…that professes manifold ideals, opinions and tendencies. From time to time these tendencies work out into systems, that are to renew the basis and superstructure of society, politics, philosophy, theology and the Church herself and of the Christian religion.[It is] A spirit of movement and change, with an inclination to a sweeping for of evolution such as abhors anything fixed and stationary” (ibid)

The Church clearly had serious misgivings about these aspects of “Modernism” in the early 20th Century, but to what extent did the Modernist churches in Scotland fulfil or realise these fears?

To focus on the architecture: “rejecting ornament and embracing minimalism, Modernism as an architectural movement became the dominant global movement in 20th century art and design” (RIBA, op.cit.)

Consider, from 1963 Sacrosanctum Concilium (124): “Ordinaries, by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and ornaments.”

The modernism of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia seems entirely fitting and appropriate. But who were they, what did they do, and were they really the appropriate people to provide churches for dislocated Catholics in late 20th century Scotland?

Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein, atheists of German Jewish and Scottish Presbyterian backgrounds suggested in response to questions about their suitability, “said something to the effect that you don’t have to be a cow to design cowsheds” (Moore, 2015) Stroik reminds us that there should not necessarily be a problem with atheists designing sacred buildings, citing Father Couturier (Chief Editor of the review L’Arte Sacre 1936 – 1954), who believed that all “true art” is “sacred art”, and that it was “better to have a talented atheist making Christian art or designing churches than to have a pious artist who was mediocre. This premise was the opposite of the historic view of the church as a “sermon in stone”, a work of faith by architect, parish and artisans”. (Stroik, op.cit.)

Wallace is well aware of the significance of the purpose of the buildings: “I’m addressing a lot of things about this building, its design, the architecture, the use of the building, the fact that it is a church… As an artist having the task of making work for this building which is architecture and also a place of worship, I’ve been trying to make a piece of work that takes note of both things…. I feel I’m trying to do something that isn’t just about my work but about the relationship… an artist trying to make work for a very loaded environment… This [Our Lady of Good Counsel] has definitely been the most difficult space I’ve ever had to try and work with because of its use. I kept coming in sitting through the Mass, watching people, feeling the reverence.” (Wallace, 2010)

“The Council’s acceptance of the styles of the time and rejection of limitation to any particular style can be seen as a careful opening of the window to Modernism. The architectural establishment, by this time thoroughly cut off from its historical tradition, came in like a flood. A few architects and designers [made an effort] to argue for a modern architecture imbued with a Christian theology. [They] promoted a “non-church” building emphasizing the assembly, without hierarchical orientation, fixed elements, or traditional architectural language. These architects’ rejection of most of Christianity’s architectural and liturgical development, coupled with their promotion of an abstract aesthetic, seemed to baptize, confirm and marry Modernism to the Church.” (Stroik, op.cit.)

The conservative response to these changes in church architecture was sometimes one of passionate lamentation: – “In contrast to the splendor of Solomon’s temple and to the beautiful, holy and inspiring Catholic churches of times past, many modern churches are plain, functional, barren, and even ugly. Before, they gave honor to God and “instructed and raised the heart and mind to God”. Nowadays, churches tend to be egalitarian and often fail to achieve the lifting of one’s heart and mind to God.” (“Changed Architecture” in Summary of Changes Since Vatican II)

This is certainly not the case for all users of GKC’s churches, however. There is no shortage of critical admiration for the churches, however, and an informed sensibility is evident in this defence of GKC’s work on Sacred Heart Church, Cumbernauld (1964):

“The monumentalist, brutalist architecture of the 50s-70s has the ability to shock and fascinate and much of it remains futurist unlike many post modernist buildings of the 80s and 90s which often looked dated by the time of completion. There’s a stark beauty in brutalism. In the case of the GKC buildings in C-nauld it’s a damn shame that they and indeed the Town Centre megastructure were painted in the 80s cos by now the concrete would have weathered and become (as was always intended) “organic” in appearance.” (Hidden Glasgow forum)

Another fondly remembers the same church building in use: “I went to a wedding in the Sacred Heart Church in Cumbernauld in the mid 90’s, it was a beautiful clear crisp sunny winters day and the stained glass was sending coloured rays across the church catching the dust particles in the air. It was quite a unique atmosphere, something i had not really experienced before. Obviously quite deliberate on the part of the Architects and the Stained Glass Artists, very clever. The other abiding memory of that Church was it was like a fridge, absolutely freezing. As well as the rays of light you could see everyones warm breath on the cold air. It was colder inside than it was outside.” (Hidden Glasgow forum)

Another feels a striking ambivalence and confusion when confronted with the modernist style of GKC: “There is something very unique and distinctive about their building design… I should really dislike them but I’ve found myself fascinated and curious about them” (Hidden Glasgow forum)

The inherent problems with many of GKC’s churches are well recorded – St Benedict’s Drumchapel, for example, completed in 1970, was controversially demolished in 1991, possibly to save the parish the exorbitant cost of restoration, while in Kilsyth, St Patrick’s Church was becoming notorious for its many problems: “Whilst during the 1960’s there was a courageous and forward looking endorsement of modernist form and design by the Scottish Catholic Church, which was utterly radical for its time, it was subsequently and quite quickly clear the church authorities were guilty of not applying such diligence to the supervision of construction contractors or use of quality materials. This combined with a number of latent detailed design defects lead to a host of problems in many of the GKC buildings and at St Patrick’s where these defects were manifest too, these flaws rendered the building at best unsightly and at worst almost uninhabitable for decades.” (Trower)

Working instinctively, producing a series of works which both belonged in and set up a challenge to the forms and ideas embodied in the buildings, Wallace reflected “The things I tend to be drawn to are light, shape, colour but usually when I finish a piece of work I discover much later there was other intellectual stuff happening underneath … I think that has been happening here.” The apparent simplicity of the works evokes the concerns of Modernism and touches on the theological notion of the fallen nature of the world. “I’m attracted to modernist shapes and maybe these churches which are readily accessible in Glasgow are such a striking example of that type of design… my work is going to be a total contrast to that. I don’t want to end up doing something that is a rubbish pastiche of modernism… a very poor match for the building that was housing the sculptures.”

“…I hope I’m going to end up with something that looks like something a crafted artefact that might have something to do with the church but as you go closer, you go, no that’s a sculpture, that’s art, possibly, and then on closer examination, discover it’s obviously scrap wood which is all tarnished and got holes and stuff but it is just pulled out the bin. I think I’ve hit on a way of working that feels right for this building and it’s to do with being intuitive and impulsive and quick and pure.” This is very far from being a “rubbish pastiche of modernism”. “Even though they look like they are roughly thrown together, they are carefully planned.” The artworks, as the buildings, reward contemplation.

Modernism, with its pre-occupation with stark geometric forms, expressing Euclidean purity, striving, perhaps for a near Platonic expression of form, strips back the coralline excesses of the Baroque, transcends the neo-gothic love of light flooding into space, and reasserts artistically, majestically, the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (Otto, 1917) at the heart of all religious truth.

“Hopefully people might see… in a slightly different way, through the work… I know that people who use this building, tend to get fed up because it’s cold… it’s got to be functional, but maybe by talking about the architecture a bit more, maybe they might look at the building slightly differently and see the good things about it… It’s about trying to see the building in a more positive light… it’s to do with purity, it’s to do with architecture but also the whole essence of religion. It’s supposed to be about purity and simplicity.” (Ally Wallace 2010)

“Blest be the Architect, whose art

Could build so strong in a weak heart.”

The significance of continuity and change in Church architecture and communities:

St. Benedict’s (16 – 24 April)

“It is interesting in the way they have been interfered over the years… I find myself blocking out the modern bits. I like the purity of their original vision…”

“St Benedict’s is different…[from Our Lady of Good Counsel] I’m making a large piece and it feels more like a gallery, it’s really different, but still I’m thinking about the same things, trying to relate it to the architecture, relate in some way to the building’s use… maybe presenting something to people where they’ll think differently – they might have dismissed something initially but might rethink it and actually “that is interesting” “that is valid” and “I haven’t thought of it like that before”.”

“The thing at St Benedict’s… is an architectural trashed item which is what their building was like until 2005 when they had it totally refurbished – the place was falling to bits with dampness, big dribbles, revolting colours, stain on the walls and it now looks beautiful… This is what it was like, it was crumbling away to nothing – that is what happens to these buildings, but it was brought back to life again.”

Ally Wallace was talking to Leon Robinson, Programme Leader in Religious and Philosophical Education, University of Glasgow

Thanks to Denise Porada for transcription.

“church decoration, architecture, and furnishings became a touchstone of the theological and political struggle that would end in the British Civil Wars” – See more at: “

Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society – See more at:

Stroik, D, (1997) The Roots of Modernist Church Architecture , Adoremus the Journal for the Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, at (accessed 8/12/2016)

Rowan Moore, The Guardian Saturday 17 January 2015 (accessed 8/12/2016)

Summary of Changes Since Vatican II at

Hidden Glasgow forum on Gillespie, Kidd and Coia : (accessed 8/12/2016)

Trower, J: “The history of the building of the new church” St Patrick’s Kilsyth, at (accessed 8/12/2016)

Otto, R The Idea of the Holy Trans. John W. Harvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923; 2nd ed., 1950 [Das Heilige, 1917])

Herbert, George. The Poetical Works of George Herbert, New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1857. 82-83.