(james benedict brown) on the road

The Liberties

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 13 October, 2010

I was in Dublin last week for the first events of the annual Open House weekend. I met a friend in town to see the opening debate (a snooze fest from which we escaped early) before he kindly gave me a lift part of the way back to Belfast. I asked him, based on his knowledge of Dublin and of me, which neighbourhood in the city he could see me living in. I don’t know whether this reflects more on me or more on Dublin, but he suggested the Liberties.

I generally wait ages for a trip to Dublin, and then two come along at once. So I’m back again this week, doing some research in Dublin (today and Friday) and Waterford (Thursday). With an hour or two spare, I took a tram towards Heuston and the Museum of Modern Art. Heading back to town, I diverted through the inner city Liberties to have a look around.

It’s only looking back at this photograph an hour or two later that I realise just how green the grass would seem to be on this side of the border.

However, just to re-assure everyone who might be surprised at the thought (including my family, my girlfriend, my supervisor) – I’m not moving to Dublin. It’s just a handy way to ask someone who knows you and a city that’s unfamiliar to you where your characters might overlap. It was on that visit last week I realised that I’ve been to Paris more times than Dublin. Being so close to this city, that’s something of an embarrassment. So I’ve made some allowances in my schedule to rediscover my flâneur-ish behaviour in a city that’s shamefully quite unknown to me. I’ll be uploading some more photographs from my trip in the coming days on Flickr.

Edit: More pics from my walk around the Liberties here.

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The Idea of North

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 1 December, 2008

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On journeys to the northernmost extremities of the countries I’ve lived in or visited, I have always travelled by train. In the early winter of 1997 or 1998 (I have very little documentary evidence to remind me) I pushed further north than I’ve ever been since, arriving in St. Petersburg (59º 56’N) on a stiflingly hot sleeper train from Moscow. Then in May 2006 I travelled north from Winnipeg in Manitoba to the remote town of Churchill on the frozen shore of the Hudson Bay (58º 74’N). The journey took about forty hours, snaking up through prairie farmland towards thick forests and remote native settlements, before striking the bleak tundra that rolled on for hours until we reached the end of the line. The pair of locomotives that hauled me there (in the thrice-weekly rake of refurbished fifties passenger carriages) are seen above, rumbling away during their twelve hour layover before the return journey south. The engines of these trains always idle when stationed in Churchill in case the sub-zero temperatures seize them up and they can’t be restarted. And they always pull the train in tandem, no matter how short or lightly loaded the train is, since breakdowns cannot easily be rescued.

On Saturday I pushed further north in the British Isles than I’ve ever managed before, and unsurprisingly enough I did it by train, riding on Britain’s most northerly railway.

It should be considered a national disgrace that British trains don’t have the same majesty, sophistication or drama of Russian or American locomotives. The Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso (58º 59’N) and Wick (58º 45’N) traverses some of Britain’s remotest and most beautiful landscapes, taking four and a half hours to cover some 280-odd miles. But it now does so under the almost exclusive service of frankly piddly little two-carriage Sprinter railcars, the noisy, rattly, overcrowded and cramped scourge of my old cross country commute between East Anglia and Sheffield.

But then again, the scenery more than makes up for the discomfort of the journey. This was perhaps the coldest weekend of the winter so far, with the BBC expecting inland temperatures in the Highlands to drop as low as -15ºC. On Saturday only a light frost had touched the remote moorland seen from the train (above); my relatively busy train from Glasgow to Inverness had earlier crossed the Drumochter Pass in thick snow.

But by Sunday afternoon and the return journey, a heavy snowfall had covered the northern Highlands. We rattled across unwelded track (that’s what makes the clickety-clack, don’t you know?) and I sank into the seat, recalling Glen Gould and endless wintry skies.

One for the Macallan Club

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 23 November, 2008

There is, amongst successful architects, a fabled and very exclusive club. A club with a membership over which the member has no control; one which invites you in as you realise the fragility of the architect’s profession. In an extract from this article in Building Design, Charlie Hussey and Charlie Sutherland recall their tutor at the Glasgow School of Art, Isi Metzstein:

If you ever receive an unsolicited bottle of Macallan from Isi Metzstein, you have some cause for concern. This is a club with a select membership, to which James Stirling, Enric Miralles and Louis Kahn can all lay claim.

And certainly the distressing state of St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, masterwork of Isi and his partner Andy Macmillan, is a testament to the founding of the Macallan Club, membership of which is restricted to those whose buildings are demolished, redundant or abandoned in the architect’s lifetime.

I am some way in my architectural career from joining these illustrious figures. To be honest, I’m not making much headway at all in that particular career, but that is no longer as much of a concern as it once was. But I have passed a modest personal milestone. Seen through the window of a moving train earlier this week, I have glimpsed what must be the first building to be constructed on which I have contributed to the design.

I say “contributed” because I was a lowly student architect, and most of my work involved hacking about with a the structural grid, parking garages and floorplans of a complex of curved apartment blocks. It was a harsh baptism of the reality of modern real estate in this country as I squeezed one bedroom apartments into a footprint of not much more than 52 square metres (560 sq. ft.). Not much room for storage and many with only single aspect. But inspecting the sales brochures online when I got home, I was touched to see that much was as I remembered it.

I have no idea how the birth of this complex into a global financial crisis has affected it, but I am reliably assured that the “entire first phase” has now sold out. No word, though, on how many apartments were in that first phase.

I can’t claim any credit for the appearance or basic design of the building, nor can I defend myself for some truly mediocre space standards. But if you would like to buy me a glass of Macallan 12 the next time you see me, I’ll gladly reminisce about my first steps in this profession.

Snapshot: commuter feet

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 November, 2008

On a train from Waterloo to Strawberry Hill, Wednesday afternoon.

Snapshot: Caution

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 30 September, 2008

Seen on board the ScotRail Caledonain Sleeper last week en route to London.