Award of Excellence: Messenger House II

The architects’ intent was to continue a line of inquiry in their design research into material culture, and to this end have used minimalist, monolithic form to move progressively away from local, vernacular forms and materials toward a modern architecture which respects the cultural ethic of its place. The project is a year-round facility consisting of a main house, a semi-enclosed courtyard/ porch and a guest house situated on a glacial hilltop estuary perpendicular to the Nova Scotia coast to the southeast and parallel to a river estuary to the southwest where it overlooks the ruins of a nearly 400-year old village.

The house is a thin-skinned torsion box on perimeter foundations; openings are created by way of incision by peeling back layers of fabric: shingles, sheathing, strapping and studs. The tightness and zero-detailing gives the house prominence that is commensurate with the austere site. Site conservation measures include a strategy of cultivation rather than consumption, in keeping with local agrarian traditions, so the site was restored to its 400-hundred year agrarian state as a pasture.

The form, perpendicular to the Nova Scotia coastline, lends itself to passive solar gain. In-floor heating and its thermal mass captures south and west sun, while 90 feet of sliding barn doors protect the house from the prevailing west wind. Natural silver cedar shingles are used along with clean aluminum window frames and a galvalume roof.

Erickson: This meditation on minimalism captures the spirit of Zen architecture by eliminating the unnecessary in order to reach an ultimate purity of form.

Fisher: This house has an elevation and plan that cleverly follow the same form, with the openings of one echoing the spaces of the other. The skill required to pull off that kind of formal integration is amazing. The house looks, from some perspectives, like the hull of a boat pulled up on dry land, and from other angles, like an extension of the hillside it occupies. Shingled and asymmetrical, it also looks like a fallen tree, a remnant of some ancient forest. That such a simple, small house can evoke such powerful images attests to the greatness of this work.

MacDonald: Another beautiful house by Brian MacKay-Lyons, perhaps the best one so far. The language of this house is highly developed, synthesizing aspects of its heritage (Nova Scotia object building overlooking ocean landscape), with highly evolved formal and spatial notions that help it transcend the original type. The refinement and minimal nature exemplified in the window/roof/wall relationships make this a clearly Modern project, at home in its rural landscape.

I find it particularly interesting that the structure manages to hold its ground in the landscape, without actually engaging it physically. Its sense of anchorage is achieved through the authority of its highly resolved composition, and with its connection through history to the type.

My one lament is with the fireplaces, which seem to need a greater sense of location and more substance.

Client: John and Mary Messenger

Architect team: Brian MacKay-Lyons, (design architect), Trevor Davies, (project architect, design); Peter Blackie, (project architect construction), Chad Jamieson.

Structural: Campbell Comeau

Photography: Geoff Miller (models), Brian MacKay-Lyons, Peter Blackie, Chad Jamieson

Budget: withheld by request

Completion: December 2002

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