Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

This blog post was started months ago but was abandoned due to other commitments. It is, however, a relevant account of one article that was particularly important to the dissertation. 

Welcome back to those loyal regular readers who have missed me for almost a month. My apologies for the prolonged silence, but with the end of the academic term in France I’ve been somewhat occupied submitting design projects and relocating back to the UK. I’m now settled for the summer in sunny London, looking forward to the convenience of the the capital’s various libraries and galleries. It’s been several weeks since I started reading Nathalie op de Beeck’s 2006 essay Found Objects, published in volume 52, number 4 (winter 2006) of MFS Modern Fiction Studies. The article is available online for most academic institutions via the Muse portal.

With just a few weeks left of my semester here in Strasbourg, there was time for one last weekend trip before the final push towards the end of term. So on a warm Thursday evening I was at Strasbourg station to board train 64 to Paris: a ‘proper’ train of sparkling white and red German Railways carriages en route from Munich to Paris. This elegant old train arrived with a full service restaurant car and a rake of first and second class carriages, each offering big open saloons or more private six seat compartments. Why the importance of this train? Because this would be one of the last days that train 64 would operate. Just three days later, Strasbourg was to be catapulted into the twenty-first century with the arrival of the TGV Est Européen. Every one of the old fashioned trains will be replaced by modern high speed trains. The restaurant cars are going, the old passenger compartments are disappearing, and fares are being cranked up – on average by about 30-35%. Even the once-mythical Orient Express – which once connected London with Istanbul – is getting another leg chopped off its once grand route: from this weekend it will only operate between Strasbourg and Vienna, barely an overnight shuttle.

With a lingering nostalgia for a soon-to-be-antiquated form of transport, I found my reserved seat in a compartment. As we left Strasbourg, I considered that this was the ideal situation for me to catch up on some reading – on a leisurely four hour train ride through rolling countryside. And as we passed through Lorraine, I splashed out on dinner in the restaurant car, and drank to the death of ‘real’ train travel. An atmosphere of lingering nostalgia was suitably established.

op de Beeck introduces her essay by explaining how she sees Jem Cohen’s film Lost Book Found and Ben Katchor’s comic strip Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer through the “contemporary interpretations [ … that … ] relfexively intersect with Walter Benjamin’s critical theory.” (p. 808). Cohen and Katchor “critique contemporary existence by remaining closely observant to overlooked details, outmoded artifacts, memory and forgetting … they attend to the passage of time, the gradual obsalence of machines and functions, and entropic repitition in the urban space” (p. 808). op de Beeck classifies Katchor’s comic strips and Cohen’s films as aphoristic formats: “we read it fast, but the melancholic sensation lingers” (p.808). Similar, perhaps, to the effect of a train journey. Reminiscent also of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, and the cricket player seen from a moving train, running up to the stumps but out of sight by the time he bowls.

The essay has introduced me to a filmaker (Cohen) and a film that I did not previously know of (Lost Book Found). In Lost Book Found a wandering narrative is told by a pushcart vendor in New York City, who encounters a lone man fishing for detritus through street sewer grilles. The pushcart vendor is an invisible observer in the bustling city – an anonymous figure who becomes so recognisable that he is quickly overlooked and made part of the cityscape. Similarly, the real estate photographer Julius Knipl explores Ben Katchor’s re-imagined New York City as a near-invisible observer.

Their texts overlap in mutual appreciation of transience, futile gestures, and the human condition … both Katchor and Cohen contribute to a dialogue on the remembered past, with a critical eye on how antique artifacts and productive labor are understood…

Nathalie op de Beeck, Found Objects, MFS vol. 52 no. 4, Winter 2006

As an architect, I am interested in the narrative techniques of urban observers such as the pushcart vendor and Julius Knipl: participants in a complex urban geography who, because of their profession or social situation, become extremely well placed observers and even chroniclers of the passage of time in a city. The idea of adopting the role of such a person in order to re-map urban spaces is nothing new in more progressive schools of of architecture, but it also presents many exciting opportunities to consider the understanding and broader presentation of architectural environments as they are occupied and changed over time.

Katchor promts readers to recognize the significance of each tiny detail, and in that brief wakefulness, to sense the overwhelming intricacy of modern life.

Nathalie op de Beeck, Found Objects, MFS vol. 52 no. 4, Winter 2006

Cohen asserts his camera’s eye through the use of documentary-style cinematic techniques. Katchor, meanwhile, draws a complete fiction of a city with such attention to detail, and such a furtive and fast moving line that we are drawn into imagined but utterly convincing urban environments.

This false work of so-called memorializing – creating imaginary places, fake memorials to sympathetic people, and auratic objects analogous to actual artifacts – becomes crucial to storytelling, and to the cultivation of contemporary empathy despite mass distraction.

Nathalie op de Beeck, Found Objects, MFS vol. 52 no. 4, Winter 2006

Just like Garrison Keillor’s Tales from Lake Wobegon or Stuart McLean’s stories from the Vinyl Café, fictional environments and settings are vital to convincing storytelling. I extremely interested in Katchor’s tales of the city precisely becaue they invoke such powerful sensations of nostalgia and loneliness, even though they are set in places that never existed.

Apologies for not posting anything for a while; the project is progressing rapidly, and the final text will be submitted in just over two weeks time. I enjoyed an interesting conversation with Ben Katchor in New York City a few weeks ago, and after some time and space to think about the project (while piloting a white Mustang convertible around the American mid-west) it’s now time to get my head down and finish writing the damn thing.

I’ll bring you more news of the hard slog in the coming days. I’m now back in Sheffield and starting my courses here for the sixth and final year of my architectural education. It’s good to be back, but after all this time, the freshers look even younger than ever. I must be becoming part of the furniture.

I don’t believe that the omens are good for my career as an interviewer. As you may know by now, I was involved in a car crash en route to interview Joost Swarte and Henk Döll in the Netherlands. While I haven’t been involved in any road traffic accidents getting here, to New York City where I’ll be interviewing Ben Katchor later this week, I have lost all my luggage. My one piece of checked baggage disappeared somewhere in Philadelphia International Airport, never to be seen again. Unfortunately all my research notes and dissertation papers were inside my bag, as well as two well thumbed copies of Katchor’s books Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer.

On the one hand, this is extremely frustrating, not least because I’ve now been wearing the same clothes for 48 hours, and it’s extremely hot and humid here in Manhattan. On the other hand, it’s a worthwhile vindication of this blog, which has acted as a digital backup of virtually all my work up to this point. If the hit counter starts to spin in the coming weeks, it’s probably not because the blog is becoming more popular, simply that I am using it more in my own research to retrace my steps through my research.

I’m hoping to meet Ben Katchor towards the end of this week. Part of the interview might appear as a forthcoming podcast, and excerpts will also emerge here in due course.

Despite some initial difficulties getting to London Waterloo station on Saturday morning, I spent the weekend in the Netherlands visiting the towns of Haarlem, Hilversum and Rotterdam. I was in Haarlem to meet the cartoonist Joost Swarte, and Rotterdam to meet the architect Henk Döll. The two men collaborated on the design of the Haarlem Toneelschuur Theatre which, as regular readers will recall, has become an interesting case study for this project. After our interview, Joost even took me for a stroll through the bustling streets of Haarlem to see the theatre, and also the neighbouring Johanes Enschede Hof social housing project, the design of which he was also involved in.

In Rotterdam on Monday morning, Henk Döll explained how he had been approached the design the theatre with Joost, and what engaging with a non-architect had meant for the creative process.

Both interviews were recorded, and I’m going to be up late most nights this week transcribing them for the project. Excerpts will appear here; the entirity of the texts may appear in a publication shortly, and the audio recording of my walk through Haarlem with Joost will be released as episode five of the ontheroad podcast later this week. Click here to subscribe via iTunes.

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Further to the other recent announcements about forthcoming interviews, I’m very pleased to confirm that while in the Netherlands and in addition to meeting the cartoonist and illustrator Joost Swarte, I will be meeting the architect Henk Döll. Döll was the project architect at Mecanoo Architecten who worked with Swarte to build the Haarlem Toneelschuur. Döll now has his own practice in Rotterdam, who provide this useful biography.

Henk Döll (born 1956) graduated in 1984 from the Department of Architecture at the Technical University of Delft. As a result of winning and realising the ‘Kruisplein’ housing competition in Rotterdam (1980-1985), he was already working during his studies as an independent architect in the firm of Döll-Houben-Steenhuis. In 1983 this cooperative firm was changed into the Delft-based office of Mecanoo, in which he was partner until mid-2003. Within Mecanoo Henk Döll was responsible as leading architect for more than 120 projects and was also closely involved in many of the office’s other works. A large number of his projects, such as the Park Haagseweg residential area in Amsterdam, the Almelo Public Library, the multi-functional Rochussenstraat building in Rotterdam, and the Toneelschuur in Haarlem, are key projects in the history of Dutch architecture.

At Mecanoo he received various prizes and distinctions, such as the Rotterdam-Maaskant Prize for Young Architects in 1987, “for his innovative contribution to housing architecture”. His work has been shown at numerous exhibitions in the Netherlands and abroad and is often published in Dutch and international magazines and books.

Henk Döll regularly gives guest lectures and presentations and he teaches at various architectural schools, both at home and abroad. His appointments have included a guest professorship at the Institüt für Städtebau, Raumplanung und Raumordnung of the Technische Universität Wien (1995) and the Eliel Saarinen chair at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning of the University of Michigan (2000/2001). He has served on numerous competition juries and is currently a board member of the Genootschap Architectura et Amicitia and of the Atelier HSL Foundation.

Is a comic artist and illustrator without any formal architectural training necessarily a better or equally capable designer of buildings than a professional architect? By meeting both Joost Swarte (the comic artist) and Henk Döll (his partner in the Toneelschuur project), I look forward to finding out two very valuable opinions.

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In addition to this week’s news that I will be travelling to the Netherlands in August to meet and talk with the comic artist and illustrator Joost Swarte, I can also now confirm that I will be in New York City in September to interview the artist Ben Katchor. This trip has also been supported by the Stephenson Travelling Studentship awarded to this project by the University of Sheffield. Katchor’s sophisticated evocation of nostalgia, memory in urban narratives are of particular personal interest to me, and I’m looking forward to discussing the techniques employed by Katchor in his popular serialised comics Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer and The Jew of New York.

I’m also going to be celebrating a birthday in New York City, before perhaps taking off for a mini road trip and vacation in the mid-west, so excerpts and highlights of the interview will probably appear online in late September or early October.

If any interested readers are going to be in New York City between 11 and 16 September or Chicago between 17 and 27 September, drop me a line, and I’d be delighted to say hello.

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Following last month’s happy news that this project has been awarded a travelling studentship by the University of Sheffield, I am now able to confirm that I will be travelling to the Netherlands in August to meet the Dutch cartoonist and illustrator Joost Swarte. Swarte is one of the most important artists being studied as part of this project, principally because of his ground breaking role as the principal designer and architect of the Haarlem Toneelschuur.

In addition to informing my final dissertation, excerpts of the interview will be online some time in late August or early September.

If any interested readers of the blog are going to be in Brussels, Haarlem, Amsterdam, or Rotterdam between 18 and 20 August please drop me a line, and I’d be delighted to say hello. Ik zou ook het genoegen hebben om om het even welke Nederlandse lezers te ontmoeten, op voorwaarde dat zij me voor het spreken van hun taal niet vergeven!

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The trustees of the Sir H. K. Stephenson Travelling Studentship in Architecture have announced that they will be awarding this research project the maximum possible amount allowed by the fund.

The Studentships are open to men and women of British Nationality who have gained admission to the Final Year for either a Degree or Masters in Architecture at the University of Sheffield. Two Studentships are offered every year to the value of £300 each.  They are to be used wholly to meet the costs of travel and study in Britain and abroad undertaken during the long vacation prior to the commencement of the Final year of study and related to the subject of the candidate’s thesis.

The financial support provided by this generous studentship will allow me to travel to the Netherlands and the USA to undertake at least two interviews and original research leading to the final dissertation. I hope to thank the trustees of the fund personally in due course, but until then I use this message to offer my sincere gratitude for their interest and faith in this project; I am honoured to have been chosen to receive this support.

Details will follow soon about the people I’m going to be meeting and interviewing.

Even though I don’t speak German, I’m kicking myself for not finding out about this conference sooner. Thanks to Matteo Stefanelli on the Comix Scholars Discussion List for bringing it up though… as with all the others, maybe I’ll make it next year.

Comic und Stadt (Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence) 7-9 June 2007, Berlin, Germany.

Instead I’m going to Paris for the weekend, and I’m hoping not to be as sick as last time.

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Big news folks… “no words no action” (i.e. myself, wearing my dissertation hat) will be coming to the United States of America in September to conduct some primary research and to do an interview or two. I don’t want to go into the specifics, but all will be revealed here in due course. I’m both honoured and excited to have the chance to meet the people I’ll be meeting.

Meanwhile, if you’re going to be around in either of the following cities, please drop me a line…

10 – 16 September 2007: New York City, NY

17 – 28 September 2007: Chicago, IL

My special thanks go to: L.N. in NYC and A.M. in Chicago for graciously offering to accommodate me; the US Government for maintaining such a bankrupt US dollar; and US Airways for continuing to price trans-Atlantic flights in dollars, thereby allowing me nab an absolute bargain for my flights with my British credit card…

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Hello from rural Norfolk, in the green and pleasant countryside of East Anglia. My delayed Easter vacation has allowed me to return to my family home, and to a landscape of multi-coloured heaths, punctuated by gnarled trees and thick forests. Villages here are built of brick and flint, and the occasional round towered medieval church pokes up above the generally flat landscape.

My apologies to regular readers to the prolonged silence on this blog: I’ve been occupied with other less stimulating things (releasing the inner white van man in me, fixing beligerant digital telephones and filing my Canadian income taxes, for example). Until I’m able to blog some more, I’ll leave you with this image – Theatre cross-section from 1996 by Joost Swarte. It’s included in the excellent study of the Toneelschuur Theatre by Jan Tromp, Henk Doll and Charles Reichblum, which was delivered to me just before I left Strasbourg. I’ll write some more about this book soon, because the Toneelschuur is looking to be an increasingly important building for my project; perhaps the only example of a building designed by a cartoonist. Other cartoonists have drawn buildings in sections, but I can’t remember one who has drawn one with the same appreciation of the hierachy and relationship of spaces in a building of such specific purpose. It’s also drawn with a humour that make similar architects’ sections so dull by comparison.

Going on retreat

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A big thank you to everyone who has contributed to the ongoing research for this project. The bizarre French academic system is giving me my ‘Easter’ holiday one week after Easter. So, with my TGV and Eurostar tickets in hand, I’m about to head off for a couple of days peace and quiet back home in England. I’ll be taking advantage of this break to prepare the first chapter submission of my dissertation for Monday 23 April, which will draw on all of the work and reading that I’ve done so far. The chapter will not necessarily be suggestive of the final submission, and I’m under no obligation to actually include it in the finished thesis. It will, however, give me a chance to chew the cud and produce a concerted statement of intent for the rest of the dissertation.

I’ll post the chapter here in pdf format on or around 23 April. Thanks again to everyone who’s helped me out, I hope you continue to find more of interest here in the coming months.

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Frequent is the architecture student’s cry of disbelief when someone recommends a building to him, only to find it’s one that he vaguely remembered seeing somewhere before, but which he never had the foresight to think of. Today’s star suggestion over on the Comics Journal message board came from user tapvd, who directed my attention towards the Dutch artist Joost Swarte. Not only as Swarte a remarkable and prolific producer of comics in the ligne claire style (like Chris Ware), he also recently partnered with Mecanoo Architects to build this, the Toneelschuur Theatre in Haarlem, near Amsterdam. A trip to the low countries was already on the cards for my forthcoming easter break, so maybe a diversion via Haarlem will be in order.

Time to get my European Railway Timetable out. Thanks again to everyone making suggestions over the Comics Journal message board.

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I’ll be in Paris 30 March – 2 May and Stuttgart 7 – 9 May. My earlier atttempt to solicit recommendations for comics book stores or libraries in Paris on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree did not have that much success (“go to Brussels” being one particularly useless suggestion). If you have any suggestions for unmissable bookstores or cultural centres, please let me know




  • ABOUT THE PROJECT

    "no words no action" was an experiment in academic blogging. The blog recorded the progress of reading, research and investigations that lead to a Masters in Architecture dissertation at the University of Sheffield in autumn 2007. You can find out more about the author's interest in blogging here.

    To find out more about the thesis, download the original dissertation proposal (pdf format) from February 2007 or the semi-formal first chapter (pdf format) from April 2007.

    Further research projects are in the works, and their dependence on human interaction and networking suggests more blogging will be inevitable when the time comes.


  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    At the time that this blog was created, James Benedict Brown was a fifth year Masters of Architecture student at the University of Sheffield. James' personal blog is here.

    James graduated in 2008 and now lives and works in Glasgow.


  • ABOUT THE TUTOR

    This project was supervised by Renata Tyszczuk at the University of Sheffield


  • ABOUT YOU

    If you want to correct me on something, offer an opinion on a particular artist or building, or if you'd like to recommend someone or something to find out about, please feel free to leave a comment. Just click on 'Comments' under the headline of the relevant post...


  • BOOKSHELF

    Click here to browse James' bookshelf, and to purchase books being used in this project.


  • CONFERENCE DIARY

    I've managed to miss almost half a dozen compelling conferences around the world so far this year, simply because I have no (more) money to travel and no time to escape my studies in Strasbourg and Sheffield. However, if I had a magic plane ticket and plenty of time, here's my selection of essential conferences to attend. Hopefully I'll be there for more of them next year... click here for the diary (updated every time I miss another one).


  • NOTE

    All images are used for illustrative purposes only, and the copyright remains with the artist and/or creator. Please contact me if I have misappropriated an image or incorrectly credited it. Thanks... JBB


  • SOME RIGHTS RESERVED

    Creative Commons License
    The content of this blog is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.


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