Editorial: Back to the Land

brian mackay-lyons' satellite studio in shobac, nova scotia
Brian Mackay-Lyons’ satellite studio in Shobac, Nova Scotia. Photo by Lorne Bridgeman

“Architecture is a cultivating instrument, whether you’re rehabilitating a piece of urban fabric or whether you’re clearing land to restore a field in the countryside,” Brian MacKay-Lyons, FRAIC, said in a recent interview. Brian had just been named the RAIC’s 2015 Gold Medal recipient. He spoke to me from Shobac, his farm in Kingsburg, Nova Scotia. Named after Christian Shoubach, to whom the original land grant was made, the property is sited on one of the earliest Acadian settlements from the early 1600s.

During our conversation, Brian was at his desk, looking out of a window at a herd of grazing sheep. Over more than 25 years, he has cultivated the fields of Shobac—as well as designing a remarkable series of buildings and architectural pavilions on the land.

The word “cultivation” came up repeatedly in our discussion. Brian spoke of using silent buildings to cultivate the cultural landscape. He talked about the ethic of cultivation—“you want to improve things, like a farmer wants to improve the land.”

The word “cultivation” is closely related to the word “culture.” Dating back to the 12th century, the French verb cultiver and its noun form culture both refer to the action of tilling the land to grow plants.
The kinship remains palpable in Brian’s use of the words. He reminisced about growing up in the Acadian landscape, with its half-native, half-French culture; he spoke of the importance of landscape and material culture as part of the essential content of architecture. He echoed a mentor in positing, “all culture derives from the poor”—that to be socially relevant, architecture must be economical and accessible.

Rather than high-brow elitest culture experienced with clean white gloves, Brian prefers the type of culture (and architecture) that involves digging your bare toes into the ground. He sometimes draws with a stick in the sand. He has never been afraid to get his hands dirty.

Like cultivating a farmer’s field, Brian’s architecture is about evolving a deep, committed sense of place. Preparing a field for crops is not an act done lightly: it involves removing trees, tearing into the ground, exposing seedlings to the violence of spring storms and baking sun. A building is likewise a serious matter: from its foundations sunk deep into the ground, to the stockpiles of timber and steel studs needed, to the small army of tradespeople involved. Even a house meant to perch lightly on the landscape includes considerable excavation for infrastructure and foundations. It’s a shock to the uninitiated. Over time, farmers and architects become familiar with the sight of raw, upturned earth.

The best farmers seek not solely to exploit the land for food, but to ameliorate it. Multi-year cycles of successive planting and grazing, interspersed with fallow periods, allow for the gradual improvement of soil conditions over time. For his efforts, the farmer—and his community—is rewarded with yields of nourishing crops and nourished animals.

Few people farm like this anymore, unfortunately. As Michael Pollan documents in The Omnivore’s Dilemna, the vast majority of North American farms—even many organic farms—are large-scale industrial operations that rely on heavy inputs of fertilizer, pesticides and/or migrant labour. Architecture, likewise, has been industrialized—the majority of new homes are houses in the suburbs and condos in the city, on land that’s been cleared, levelled and developed with little regard to the particularities of the terrain—let alone the smell of the earth.

Is change possible? “We’re in the optimist business, so there’s no point in lamenting anything,” says Brian. His firm takes on at least one inexpensive house under $100,000 each year. His practice also includes quiet buildings integrated into urban and rural contexts, a counterpart to his work published in glossy magazines.

Year by year, Shobac gains a boathouse here, a tower there. Gradually, the land improves. The place is cultivated with care.