The architectural styles of city buildings and their surrounding streetscapes have a much greater impact on our everyday life than we realise. It’s usually only when we visit other cities that we fully grasp what our own cities have or lack in terms of monumental, historic or modern buildings, lively public spaces and charming districts to shop, eat and wander through.
Irish architect Gregory Bracken has more experience than most of cities, having lived in Paris, Berlin, Singapore, Bangkok, and now Amsterdam. A graduate in architecture from Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) in 1992, he went on to do a master's and doctorate in architecture and is currently an assistant professor at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands.
He first started writing city guidebooks when he couldn’t find a suitable guidebook to Singapore, after he moved there in 1997. “There weren’t any books about the architecture of the city. The guidebooks were about backpacking and hostels and the political background,” explains Bracken.
He modelled his first guidebook on the sketch books he used to keep as a student in DIT Bolton St. “I decided to write a book version of my student log books, which I used to put all kinds of things in, like menus, sketches and notes.” It took two years to find a publisher for the guidebook to Singapore but it is now in its fifth edition, selling about 1,000 copies a year.
The success of the Singapore guidebook motivated Gregory Bracken to write similar guides to other cities in the Far East (Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai) which he got to know while working as an architect in Singapore and later Bangkok.
There followed guidebooks on London and Paris, all published by Marshall Cavendish. His sister, Audrey Bracken, came on board to write the guidebook to Kuala Lumpur and has also worked on Dublin Strolls, their most recent book and the first with an Irish publisher. Like her brother, Audrey lived abroad after her degree in English and classics at NUI Galway. She worked for Walker Books in London and in marketing/events planning in New York before returning to Ireland, first to Kinsale and then to Dublin last year.
“I feel I’ve returned to a more vibrant and multicultural Dublin than the one I knew before I left Ireland 12 years ago. It’s a very accessible, friendly city and although it can’t compete in scale to New York or London, that’s part of its charm,” she says.
The Brackens follow a similar pattern for each book. “I divide the city into logical routes and recognised walks, starting with the oldest bits. Then, I walk the streets and look at all the architectural styles, sketching and reading as much as I can,” says Gregory Bracken.
He says Dublin Strolls is primarily for those with a strong interest in architecture. "Dublin is notable as a brick city with all its key buildings in stone, which points to their importance. Take the palatial west front of Trinity College – in another city that would be a royal palace but here, it's a place of learning."
He disagrees with the plans to make College Green a pedestrian area with only the Luas and buses crossing on a north-south axis. "We often think that creating a pedestrian area is a magic wand solution but in Shanghai, the pedestrianisation of the main shopping street has deadened it, with a Disney-style train bringing people up and down. The pedestrianisation of College Green will be like a heart attack to the traffic flow which the rest of the circulation will have to make up. Another solution would be to bury the road so the traffic could emerge at City Hall," he says.
Bracken cites the “beautiful vistas and squares where you can engage in a rarified idea of the countryside” as one of Dublin’s charms. “There is also a lovely connection with nature with the distant view of the Dublin mountains and the unique geographical position on Dublin Bay. If I lived here, I’d live in Fitzwilliam Square. The houses are a lovely size with a stripped down, simple, functional expression,” he says.
In terms of modern architecture, Bracken is impressed by the docklands which he describes as a “vibrant, clever extension of the city with a healthy mix of social and private housing which enlivens the area by day and night”. He praises architect Daniel Libeskind’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre and its large plaza. “It’s a well-behaved, iconic building in his signature style.” In the book, he writes: “The glass curtain wall with trademark Libeskind zigzags feels like a stage curtain swishing shut. The foyer overlooks the square which is itself a sort of stage with criss-crossing and intersecting routes taking their cue from the theatre.”
Compared to cities in the Far East, he says, European cities often lack dynamism in their public spaces. “In the West, people tend to see public space as somewhere to scurry through and not to engage with strangers. Even festivals and protests are organised with police presence. But in Asian cities, the streets are very vibrant and spontaneous with sidewalk food vendors and shows.”
Even parks are used differently. “There are so few of these spaces in Asia that they are used intensely. People do tai chi and ballroom dancing, and people walk around reading the newspapers, page by page in glass-covered cases.”
Audrey Bracken says her role in Dublin Strolls was to inject a personal feel to the book, diluting her brother's architectural detail with historical anecdotes. The Sunlight Chambers on the corner of Parliament Street is one of her favourite buildings; it is described in the book as "a colourful and light-hearted Victorian reinterpretation of 15th-century Italian architecture with two strips of faience panelling between the storeys depicting the use of soap in the Renaissance". Isolde's Tower, the 13th-century defence tower discovered when an apartment complex was being built in the 1990s, is another of her favourites.
As Dublin Strolls is launched in the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland this week, the Brackens are already thinking of doing more guidebooks on Irish cities and maybe even some audio apps. Audrey is adamant books will survive apps and downloads. "I couldn't bear the idea of books becoming obsolete. I don't think we will ever be able to replace the feeling of browsing through a real book when you're visiting a city."
Finding your routes: 10 self-guided walks in one pocket-sized book
Dublin Strolls – Exploring Dublin's Architectural Treasures by Gregory and Audrey Bracken, (Collins Press, €12.99) stands apart from similar-sized guide books to Dublin principally for its high level of architectural detail on the city's buildings and its tasteful architectural sketches. Locals and visitors will enjoy the pithy historical nuggets and sassy sense of humour. The pocket-sized guidebook is perfect for those who want to walk the city and spend time really looking at the buildings.
There are 10 self-guided routes which cover the medieval city; the Georgian southside; the cultural quarter (Kildare St to College Green); Temple Bar; docklands; the Georgian northside; Grafton St; O'Connell St; Capel St; and Oxmanstown to St James's Gate. Sections are also dedicated to Kilmainham, the Phoenix Park, the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, the National Botanic Gardens and Glasnevin Cemetery, Marino Casino, Howth and Dún Laoghaire/Sandycove.