June 2012: The degradations of Kilmahew 


While visiting the Invisible College site at Kilmahew, I was also in the midst of reading Harold Garfinkel’s short article from the 1950s – “Conditions of Successful Degradations Ceremonies”. Garfinkel was describing how any human individual’s ‘total identity’ could be reduced in the larger scheme of our social types. Central to “ritual destruction of the person concerned” is the individual’s public denunciation.  Rather than this merely changing the person involved the new identity becomes the one that the person was all along. Success lies not just in changing the person but in redefining “the situations of those that are witnesses to the denunciation.”


Garfinkel’s interest is in what conditions have to be in place for the denunciation to succeed. He begins with how both the person being denounced and the activity that lead to their denunciation must be made to seem ‘out of the ordinary’ and ends more specifically on their removal from the social order to be placed outside of it. St Peters and its surrounding gardens are certainly out of the ordinary.  Ed Hollis, speaking inside the crumbling concrete bones of the building, reminding us that, once on site, our ordinary rights as inhabitants of a building no longer applied.


More than this Garfinkel’s description chimed with the ritual destruction of the building through long year of late night rituals. The removal of its roof, the smashing of its windows, the burning of its wooden beams and bannisters, the bending of its pipes, the spraying of graffiti. The success of its degradation measured by the redefinition of the situation for those of who enter the site and are witness to its material denunciation. St Peters ‘total identity’ has been reduced to that of a ruined building and overgrown grounds. It seems now as if that was what it was all along.


Except this does not quite fit. St Peters’ total identity was unaffected by the denunciations of the detractors of modernist buildings and by its unsettled inhabitants. Its degradation from seminary to ruin was undertaken by many parties for many purposes along with the steady work of water, fungus and adventurous weeds. Other parties were trying to prevent its degradation through various failed attempts to preserve its identity, not least A-listing the building.


In becoming a ruin and a ruined garden (isn’t there a better word for gardens run wild?) the site’s identity was lowered but also elevated. To be a ruin in Britain is also to be a tumbledown treasure waiting for stabilisation and shoring up. A safer status to acquire than the older mansion on the site which was merely systematically demolished by professionals. To be a modernist ruin is to acquire an even more particular appeal. The charring, cracking, spraying, rioting, smashing, sprawling of Kilmahew and St Peters being part of the conditions of a successful upgrade ceremony.

posted by Eric Laurier, University of Edinburgh

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