so there we were, at 9.30 in the morning, walking through the drizzling rain in a Scottish new town. it was Easter Sunday and we reckoned our best shot at getting into the church would be to try to get in right before mass. this was what we had come here for, the reason we were in this particular part of Europe.
when arriving at the church we slowly pushed the door open and found ourselves in the middle of an ongoing mass; seemingly we had made some error estimating the times. my catholic travel companion urged me to step in, and not really knowing what else to do I followed suit.
bar my grandparents' funerals this was the first time I found myself in a church during service for ten, maybe fifteen, years. being from a not particularly religious background in one of the most secular countries in the world the only reason I've been to church recently has been architectural. but there I was, doing my best to keep up with what was going on, suddenly being told to stand up to shake hands with the people that had been sitting around us. I never knew or had heard about that.
the fact is I've never been to churches as much as I have since starting to study architecture but, as I said, during that time this was only ever the third time I've seen one being used for what it was designed for, and – as the other two times were for my grandfathers' funerals – the first time I was in a state to actually take in what was happening.
after mass ended we were let to roam around the place, taking photos, exploring nooks and hidden corners. then we left by foot heading back towards the train station. on our way there we happened on some old cottages in grey stone (granite, I'd say, but my memory might be playing tricks on me). the cottages were lining a picturesque cobbled street, the whole scene utterly idyllic. this was nothing I had expected - we were in the town that gave birth to the Reid brothers and thus the Jesus and Mary Chain, after all - but it was beautiful indeed. even more so for its contrast with the surroundings.
the more I travel to visit buildings, the more I appreciate unexpected happenings and scenes like these. the moments where you get to see something else, something unexpected. I used to work for a big firm and the study trips the office went on were painstakingly prepared: itineraries prepared by academics, local guides hired, restaurants pre-booked: it was the definition of a professionally organised trip. of course we got to see great buildings - and I assume I picked up a thing or two from those trips - but they were problematic to me in the same way that riding the underground in a strange town is problematic: you never get a sense of coherence, of how things are connected. you visit this one building to then immediately be on your way to the next. and this without really encountering neither the surrounding city nor the community.
not to overstate how much we've managed to take part of the local community when I've been on private trips with friends but at least we've had to rely on the people we encounter to get food, or to find our way. and in places where we've known the language we've suddenly ended up talking to some of the locals (ok, a couple of sentences exchanged with some children up an apple tree in Paspels is hardly a great exchange of views, but at least I know they find the Olgiati extension 'langweilig'). just the fact of being reliant on public transport is a great way of getting to know a city better. you're not just zoomed from one place to the other in your own private bubble but actually encounter people, and other parts of the city, on your way getting to your goal.
a time before moving here I was visiting Malmö and decided to take a trip to Lund to have a closer look at some of Klas Anshelm's work and Bengt Edman's* brutalist student-housing Sparta. walking out of the station towards the Technical university I happened to lose my way. just as I found someone to ask for directions I realised I was standing across the street from Bernt Nyberg's archival building for Landsarkivet, a huge lump of Helsingborg bricks owing quite a lot to Lewerentz's late churches. this is a building I've seen at lectures but had somehow managed to forget about since. and there it was, just in front of me. lucky me! especially as I later found out it's about to be turned into student accomodation, with huge new windows punched through those expanses of brooding brick.
I know I'm always a tourist on any of these trips, just dipping a toe in and never actually taking part in the life around me, but I think that the chance encounters and unplanned distractions have been as important to me as what I've actually planned to go somewhere for. maybe even more so.
* Bengt Edman is, together with Lennart Holm, the architect behind Villa Göth, a building that – according to Swedish architectural lore – is the one that had Hans Asplund (Gunnar's son) characterising it as 'brutalistisk' (or some such phrase, the exact wording is never entirely clear) which is supposedly the starting point for the expression 'the New Brutalism'.