Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Interview with Jackie Britton

I've been looking forward to posting another interview, this time from Jackie Britton. As she describes below, she is on the journey of a lifetime, and there's even LEGO involved! Follow Jackie's travels on her blog, Jackie's Mid Life Crisis Gap Year, or jump straight to the photos on her Flickr stream.

GodBricks Jackie, welcome to GodBricks. Before we jump in to a discussion of your travels, let's start with a bit of background about you. Could you tell us a bit about your interest in architecture, art, history and culture?

Jackie Britton I have always been interested in buildings: as a child I used to pore over house plans in old Ideal Home Exhibition catalogues and try to design my own. I find the way people live in their houses, how spaces are laid out and used in different periods and cultures fascinating. On family holidays my parents used to take us to a lot of historic buildings and I would wander around a stately home, castle or Roman villa ruin, imagining myself living there, skipping from room to room as I enacted a day's activities in my head. Since then, my interests have grown to encompass architecture as a whole, as my delight in art generally has grown. It's hard to say why looking at buildings is so compelling for me, but it is. And as for history, I have always loved museums and have been lucky enough to spend twenty-five years working in two of the UK's best, the Science Museum and then the V&A (a museum of art and design). I still doodle house plans in boring meetings too.

GB How about your background with LEGO and other building toys? Is this something that goes back to your childhood, or is it a more recent interest?

JB I have had Lego since I was about four and spent my teenage years building bigger and more complex buildings with interiors – for some reason monasteries and research laboratories figured quite often in my output. It was only much later that I started collecting historic and contemporary building toys more generally, mostly inspired by a small exhibition in London put on by RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects). It had about fifteen or twenty exhibits and I felt a visceral urge to own them all, so off I went looking for them in antique markets and then eBay, only to discover that many hundreds or even thousands of different sets have been produced worldwide since the mid-nineteenth century. I have around 1400 items in my collection and am still finding new things on a regular basis. GB - Check out Jackie's site Architoys to see more on this.

GB Finally, are you a religious person? What is your background with religion?

JB My parents packed me off to Sunday School and I was confirmed in the Church of England when I ws in my mid-teens, but that was mostly because my friends were too (my best friend's father was a vicar). But I don't believe in any gods, spirits or other supernatural powers. I do however see religious belief as a fascinating fruit of human culture, despite all the bad things that have been and continue to be done in its name. I like to say that I regard religion as a spectator sport and certainly belief has inspired much of the world's great art and architecture.

GB Thanks for that background. I've noted your travels on this blog and on MicroBricks before, but for those readers who may be new, could you describe your whole project?

JB Some years ago I was wondering how to decide which of the many competing attractions in a particular country to visit and it struck me that one criteria could be those listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites (WHSs). As I looked into the list more, I was taken with an ambition to visit all of them, or at least as many as possible – this is probably the mentality of an inveterate collector showing. When the opportunity came along to take voluntary redundancy from my job I seized the chance, and the generous lump sum payoff, to finally take the gap year I didn't have the guts to do when I was eighteen. Rather than travel continuously, I take a few months break between each trip so my gap year is going to be nearer a gap two and a half years when I run out of funds later this year. So I pick a part of the world, visit all or most of its cultural (as opposed to natural) WHSs, build a microscale Lego model of some aspect of each (or the whole thing if possible) and post an entry on my blog about each site, with photos of the real and Lego versions. I was very lazy last summer though so my blog is, at time of writing, rather behind.

GB So you've been to northern Africa, various European locations, Central and South America, Russia, and are now in Sri Lanka. What other sites will you be visiting in this Asian trip. Do you think you'll have a chance in a future trip to visit the holy sites associated with Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Mid-East?

JB The plan for this trip is to go on to India, Nepal, Bangladesh (subject to getting a visa in India), Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines, South Korea and Japan. I would have liked to visit Pakistan as well, but that didn't seem wise, or indeed possible as an independent traveller. Two well known highlights from these countries will be the Taj Mahal and Angkor, but also included, alongside all the temples and fortifications are three mountain railways in India and some colonial urban architecture. I would very much like to visit the Middle East and regret that I didn't have more time when in Syria on a business trip five years ago; although I did visit the eighth century Umayyad mosque in Damascus, built partly on Roman foundations. At the very least I hope to be able to visit Egypt in the not too distant future.

GB How did you decide to document your travels in LEGO? What are some of the challenges that you've faced in your LEGO building?

JB I'm not too sure where the idea came from, it just occurred to me one day, whilst I was still in my job and planning my future. As soon as it did though, I got very excited and realised that whilst it would sound rather mad to many of my friends, it was exactly what I wanted to do! I had wanted to find some way of responding to the places I saw, to feel that I'd really looked them rather than just taken some photographs and moved on. If I had the talent I might have gone with drawing or painting, but I create much better in three dimensions. Also you're never bored with a Lego set! The biggest challenge was deciding what to bring, and how much. I chose the limited range of colours by doing a Google image search on 'world heritage site' and getting an overall impression of the colours on screen. And I spent a very happy time scanning through pretty much the entire catalogue of parts on Bricklink looking for ideas of useful bits. Beyond that, it soon became clear to me that for most of my constructions I was only going to be able to build one facade of a building, rather than in the round. I also have to make cunning use of parts. So for instance, while I only have two 1x1 bricks in each colour, I can use the end of slopes and the back of panels when I need more blank wall. The backs of my models are a mess, often held up with a shonky network of bits in other colours to keep the SNOT sections in place. I occasionally take pictures of the backs, which you can find in my Flickr stream.

GB So many of your recreations have focused on religious structures - temples, cathedrals, etc. Can you point to a favorite or favorites from among these MOCs?

JB I think my favourites are the really complex ones, with lots of fiddly bits and those needing a higher than usual level of cunning. The more parts I've used, the happier I am. So favourites would include the MOCs for: the monastery of Guadalupe;

Burgos cathedral;

the Templo do San Domingo in Zacatecas;

the church in Olinda;

and the entrance tower of Novodevichy Convent.

GB Is there some MOC that gave you the most trouble in capturing the essence of the real thing?

JB I spent a very long time trying to work out what to build for Machu Picchu and had a few false starts where it built something very tiny and underwhelming, just to try to get over my builder's block. It is such a huge iconic archealogical site that I wanted to try to do some justice to. In the end, I had to go for an impression of part of it and cheat a little with cheese blocks just balanced on top of the walls for the steep gable ends.

GB Is there some insight you've gained in your visits to various religious sites around the world, whether personal religious growth or more cultural insights into humanity's search for an experience of the divine?

JB Hmm, interesting question. I have found that the more I see of more religions, the more firmly I know myself to be atheist, not that I was exactly ambivalent before. I see that throughout history, people have looked for an explanation of things they don't understand, tried to control the world around them or found solace in the face of a difficult life, but all in such completely different ways and sure that theirs was the religion that was right. It seems to me that in the face of these needs, it is inevitable that some kind of belief system will arise. But seeing the impact of European missionary fervour on the indigenous people of Latin America was also a powerful reminder that it never turns out well when people decide to impose their beliefs on others. The resurgence of Orthodox worhip in post-soviet Russia also shows how tenacious religious belief is even when determined attempts are made to stamp it out.

GB What is the one site you most want to visit (and build) in your future travels, if there were no limits due to money or access issues?

JB It's almost impossible to chose just one, but I'll go for the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, the winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the seventh century. Timbuktu in Mali comes a close second though.

GB Thank you so much for your time! Happy travels, and I'm looking forward to following your future adventures and LEGO creations.

JB Thank you, it has been a pleasure!

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