Utopian Nostalgia: Murray Grigor’s Space and Light (1972)

“The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia.” Svetlana Boym

One of the Moving Image Archive’s treasure troves is a collection of films produced for Films of Scotland, an agency set up by John Grierson for the Empire Exhibition of 1938 to make films promoting Scotland’s social, cultural and industrial heritage to the world. The committee was re-formed in 1955 and produced over 150 films between then and 1982. These later films capture the optimistic spirit of the post-war boom. Films like Glasgow 1980 (1971) are love letters to the modern world and its motorways, industry and abundant supermarket aisles. Others such as Pleasure Island (1960) and Travelpass (1973) promote Scotland’s natural beauty to the new leisure classes.

A love letter to the modern world. Stills from Glasgow 1980 (1971), dir. Oscar Marzaroli

Seen from half a century later, these films exude a charming innocence. Now we know that the utopian visions never quite came to pass. Many of the large scale building projects of time fell into disrepair or were demolished. Similarly, the idea that an ever expanding industrial economy can co-exist with the natural world without any ecological impact looks naive. Nevertheless, there is something about the boldness and confidence in the future has a certain nostalgic appeal.

Of the many accomplished films produced by Films of Scotland, those of Murray Grigor are notable for their charm and craft. His films range from promoting highland tourism to recounting the story of Harris tweed, but his architectural films really stand apart. Of these, Space and Light (1972) is perhaps the most unique and enigmatic. In a way it distills something characteristic of the Moving Image Archive’s collections as a whole: old film’s capacity to mesmerise us with a living tableau of the past.

In this case, it is a day in the life of the modernist masterpiece St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross on the north coast of the Firth of Clyde, designed by the architects Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein for the Glasgow-based Gillespie, Kidd & Coia.¹ The building is the main character of the film rather than its occupants, and we are introduced to the building through a series of shots which establish the relationship of the seminary to its natural surroundings. The camera lingers on a clear blue sky before the edges of a strange, angular structure is gradually revealed. Then, a shot of green woodland slowly comes to rest on the roof of the huge, modernist spaceship.

A strange, angular structure. Still from Space and Light (1972), dir. Murray Grigor
A modernist spaceship. Still from Space and Light (1972), dir. Murray Grigor

These opening images bring into focus that unspoken tension between the modernist vision and the natural landscape that lies under the surface of Films of Scotland utopianism. And this gesture of bringing the human-made into dialogue with the natural is repeated again and again throughout the film; we are constantly being directed towards the relationship between the building at its environment, catching glimpses of tress through windows, or images suggesting that nature has already gone to work to reclaim the seminary, which eerily foresees the building’s future dereliction and ruin. The modern wonder only functioned as a seminary for 14 years between 1966 and 1980 before falling into disrepair after a brief stint as a drug rehabilitation centre.²

Nature has already gone to work. Still from Space and Light (1972), dir. Murray Grigor

Space and Light opens with a quotation from Le Corbusier which seems to address this relationship between nature and the human. (Le Corbusier was also one of the inspirations behind MacMillan and Metzstein’s architectural work.)

Everything in life is in essence biological. The biology of the plan or section is as necessary and obvious as that of a creature of nature. The introduction of the word biology illuminates all researches in the field of building. Living, working, cultivating body and mind, moving from place to place, are parallel processes to those of the blood, nervous and respiratory systems.

For Le Corbusier, a building is not reducible to bricks and mortar; instead it is a living, biological thing, whose life energy is generated by the people who live and work in it.

Grigor’s film captures the spirit of Le Corbusier’s idea by filming the life of the seminary the way a beehive would be in a nature documentary. The camera is a silent observer whose purpose is to capture the sense of the everyday life of the building. From a distance the trainee priests who live and study there are interchangeable figures seemingly unaware of the alien presence watching on as they go about their daily rituals.

An alien prescence watches on. Still from Space and Light (1972), dir. Murray Grigor

We hear the murmur of hallway conversation and tiny fragments of a lecture; but the observer is more interested in the structure of their surroundings and the elegance of the architecture than in the incidental chatter of the building’s occupants or the arcane knowledge that is passed within its walls. The temporary inhabitants of the seminary are incidental to the unworldly forms of which draws the filmmaker’s attention. The important story, for Grigor, is the one taking place at the scale of the building as a living organism.

Transitory inhabitants. Still from Space and Light (1972), dir. Murray Grigor

The film brings into sharp relief two different forms of time. On the one hand there is the time of the human bodies who live and work in the rooms and corridors of the building. But there is also the time of the building itself, an edifice which has been built with the intention that it outlive its human occupants.

By filming the building rather than its occupants, Grigor encourages us to see the building as a living organism in itself, stripped of its history and severed from the people using it, which in some way frees it from the backward glance of nostalgia. Long after the building itself has gone to ruin, Space and Light allows it to live on as reminder of that other wonder of nature and biology, the human imagination. “In films we can explore the spaces of the past in order to anticipate the spaces of the future,” writes Patrick Keiller. Space and Light reminds us that as we go about our daily business, the buildings we live and work in are themselves products of the human imagination; and it invites us to imagine the spaces of our own future, like the builders and architects of St. Peter’s.

Spaces of the future. Still from Space and Light (1972), dir. Murray Grigor

Marc Di Sotto

Access and Enquiries Assistant at The National Library of Scotland at Kelvin Hall, Glasgow.

Space and Light will be screening as part of the Cine[Sthesia] film club at the National Library of Scotland at Kelvin Hall on 26 August 2017 at 1130 and 1500.

For more information about the Films of Scotland collection, see here.

Svetlana Boym’s article, “Nostalgia and its Discontents”, The Hedgehog Review vol. 9, no. 2 (2007) can be accessed through the National Library’s online catalogue.

¹ For a short history of the seminary, see Claudia Massie’s “A Modern Masterpiece on the Banks of the Clyde,” The Spectator 27 Feb. 2016. Available through the National Library’s Factiva subscription.

² For information about the current state of St Peter’s Seminary, and NVA’s plans to bring it back into use, see here. Murray Grigor returned to the site in 2009’s Space and Light Revisited.