Canadian Architect

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An Architecture of Reality

Brian MacKay-Lyons' Nova Scotia farm property is an architectural village comprised largely of projects created through 13 Ghost design-build workshops. It is also a potent touchstone, argues Juhani Pallasmaa, for architecture grounded in reality rather than fantasy.

June 2, 2015
by Juhani Pallasmaa

brian mackay-lyons' farm property in upper kingsburg, nova scotia

Buildings designed by Brian MacKay-Lyons are carefully placed throughout his farm property in Upper Kingsburg, Nova Scotia. The
architect has also designed several homes for clients in the immediate area. Photo by Will Green

TEXT Juhani Pallasmaa

Vernacular architecture condenses the acquired wisdom of ageless traditions into simple and concrete choices and practices. The first decision is always the choice of the location for the structure in relation to the landscape, existing man-made contexts, histories and myths, sun, winds, soil and microclimate. The scale and proportions of the structures arise naturally from the materials and the body dimensions of the builder himself. Instead of seeking to express any personal or unique ideas, the vernacular builder aspires to follow accepted traditions, adapting them to the specific demands of the situation. Aesthetic qualities are not a separate—or even a conscious—aspiration, but a consequence of reasonable and balanced practical decisions.

According to anthropological sources, the Balinese do not have a word for “beauty,” yet their constructions are aesthetically pleasing, because, as one local puts it, “we do everything as well as we can.” The objectification of beauty and instrumentalization of aesthetics: are these not the cardinal sins of the architecture of our time? “Beauty” is increasingly becoming an independent and self-sufficient product in our obsessive culture of endless consumption. But, as the poet Joseph Brodsky remarks, “Beauty can’t be targeted…it is always a by-product of other, often very ordinary pursuits.”1
In the modern era, these natural motives and sources of internal coherence have been lost, and architecture has turned into a conscious, intellectualized and aestheticized practice. The loss of the inherent integrity of construction tends to result in a sense of arbitrariness, fragmentation, aesthetic exaggeration, and finally, total absurdity. The “natural philosophy of architecture,” the tacit wisdom of building, has been sadly replaced by alienated, intellectualized, verbalized and calculated practices.

the restored structures of the heritage troop barn (2009), chebogue schoolhouse (2014) and one of the ghost 6 towers (2004)

A view of the restored heritage Troop Barn (2009), reconstructed Chebogue Schoolhouse (2014), and one of the Ghost 6 Towers (2004). Photo by Will Green

When I think of the architecture of Brian MacKay-Lyons, especially the Ghost project site at Shobac (his farm in Upper Kingsburg, Nova Scotia), pleasurable images of buildings—arising from and reflective of the place and its traditions—rise to my eyes. These buildings are placed to emphasize or complete the dynamics, movements and rhythms of the landscape. Each building becomes a part of its place, and it contributes to the coherence and atmosphere of the entity.

The buildings appear as if they had been extruded by the land itself, like mushrooms. They complete the site by adding missing moves, accents and gestures. These simple buildings are intelligent, efficient, clear and proud, but at the same time they posses the relaxed naturalness and humility of traditional constructions. Regardless of their inherent utility and overall rationality, they evoke a sense of ritual and meaning beyond their practical purposes. The structural systems of these clear-minded buildings are well-organized, the materiality appropriate for the place and task, and the scale and proportions pleasantly unselfconscious. Reason and moderation take on a poetic air.

Site plan of Shobac

Site plan of Shobac

The Ghost site, with its structures that have been added gradually, is a somewhat mysterious settlement: simultaneously a farm and an institution of practical research and learning, a place for dwelling and a collection of different workspaces. First of all, it is an example of how to deal respectfully with land and landscape, and their layers of meaning and secrets. As with all deeply rooted settings, the Ghost site has its histories, legends and stories. The entity creates a place of distinct meanings, which makes us see the beauty of the unique natural setting, the monumental encounter of land and water. It revitalizes the deep heritage of the region, and makes one believe in the continuum and refinement of culture. In Shobac, I find myself thinking of ancient life in Nova Scotia, human fates on its shorelines and in its forests. In addition to articulating our experiences of space and place, this setting connects us with time—natural and cultural duration—and that also makes us confident of the availability of time in the future. Here one dwells in time as much as in space and place.

Built during Ghost 8, Brian MacKay-Lyons’ satellite studio is situated between a grassy ridge and a small cliff that drops down the to LaHave River estuary. Photo by Brian MacKay-Lyons

Built during Ghost 8, Brian MacKay-Lyons’ satellite studio is situated between a grassy ridge and a small cliff that drops down the to LaHave River estuary. Photo by Brian MacKay-Lyons

Thirteen successive Ghost Construction Laboratories turned the farm repeatedly into an international meeting point and an arena for intense discussions on the future of human habitat. The combination of old and new structures, large and intimate spaces, created a flexible and joyful setting for the differing situations of the events: from intimate conversations to the memorable final dance of the 13th gathering in the octagonal Troop Barn, which also served perfectly as the lecture hall. The setting yielded a stimulating and focusing atmosphere for the events, and participation in the construction processes resulted in shared feelings of responsibility, solidarity and togetherness. Finally, the active and devoted participation of Brian’s entire family and office have turned the international group into an emotionally tied extended family.

The Ghost buildings are architecturally of their time, but they do not struggle to be extraordinary. “No real writer ever tried to be contemporary,” Jorge Luis Borges tells us.2 They combine rationality and emotion, and turn reason and restraint into the poetry of everyday life. For me, this is the highest praise for a piece of architecture: to turn lived reality and normality into something mysteriously comfortable, poetic and healing. “What is there more mysterious than clarity?”3 poet Paul Valéry asks, whereas John Hejduk (“Big John”—the legendary soul of the Cooper Union School) used to speak of the “labyrinthine clarity” of Franz Kafka’s stories.

For Ghost 6, participants built a pair of towers that frame views out towards the water. Photo by Lorne Bridgeman

For Ghost 6, participants built a pair of towers that frame views out towards the water. Photo by Lorne Bridgeman

The rural buildings of MacKay-Lyons and his office, in general, project a distinct Nordic atmosphere, perhaps most closely evoking Norwegian architecture. This character seems to be a consequence of a similar landscape and climate—perhaps also of parallel social characteristics and histories—more than of any conscious stylistic inspiration. Since the late 1950s, I have felt a special affinity between Canadian and Finnish architecture, and that could well result from the countries’ vast forests with their silences and deep shadows, as well as the stubborn individuality and self-sufficiency of the people in lands of vast dimensions. The nearness of elegant continental European traditions, dating all the way back to the Italian Renaissance, lent refinement to Nordic architecture—characteristics that have appeared more recently in Canadian architecture.

The Troop Barn was one of two remaining octagonal barns in Nova Scotia when it was deregistered as a heritage building in 2008. and for Ghost 11, a team led by Brian MacKay-Lyons and Robert Cram disassembled, transported and reconstructed the barn in Upper Kingsburg. Photo by Stephanie Mackinnon

The Troop Barn was one of two remaining octagonal barns in Nova Scotia when it was deregistered as a heritage building in 2008. and for Ghost 11, a team led by Brian MacKay-Lyons and Robert Cram disassembled, transported and reconstructed the barn in Upper Kingsburg. Photo by Stephanie Mackinnon

In the architecture of MacKay-Lyons, the reality of the ocean can also be felt, in addition to the echoes of the farming land. When I think of his work, my thoughts tend to be directed to the wise writings of two American farmer-poets, Robert Frost and Wendell Berry. Farming, gardening, fishing and construction are inherently poetic human occupations. There are two kinds of poetry: an urban intellectual poetry that deals with the world of ideas, cultural interactions and histories, and a poetry of the land that articulates meanings and experiences of nature, life and solitude. I believe that there is a similar polarity in architecture, too. The town and the forest project two entirely different spatial and formal worlds, which are reflected in the contrasting urban and forest geometries and atmospheres, respectively. I have argued that Nordic architecture at large, and especially building in Finland, arises from the spatial, rhythmic and sensory qualities of the forest. Alvar Aalto’s architecture, rich in forms, textures, materials and tactile qualities, is the prime example of this forest architecture. Canadian architecture may also reflect a similar deep experiential ground.

A boathouse built during Ghost 10 in 2008 includes a roof deck with panoramic views. Photo by Brian MacKay-Lyons

A boathouse built during Ghost 10 in 2008 includes a roof deck with panoramic views. Photo by Brian MacKay-Lyons

The thinking of MacKay-Lyons is sharp, realistic and nuanced, and well-grounded in his knowledge of history, literature and art. The sketches and conceptual schemes of his projects make their point clearly and convincingly. His drawings reflect the same matter-of-fact attitude as his words. In our era, which values fantasy and uniqueness, this sense of grounded realism is important. For some time, I have been fascinated by Alvar Aalto’s confession: “Realism usually provides the strongest stimulus for my imagination.”4 Judging by the formal and semantic complexities of his architecture, one would have expected him to support an architecture of fantasy. I am also personally grateful for the advice of my professor and mentor Aulis Blomstedt (who was Aalto’s counterpart in the Finnish architectural discourse from the late 1950s until the 1970s): “The most important talent for an architect is not the skill of fantasizing spaces and forms, but the capacity to imagine human situations.”5

A lean-to built for Ghost 5 in 2003 sits on a cliffside site. Photo by Steven Evans

A lean-to built for Ghost 5 in 2003 sits on a cliffside site. Photo by Steven Evans

I find myself increasingly supporting an architecture that arises from lived reality, instead of the fantasy architecture so popular today. In my view, we can enter the world of imagination and dream only through the real. Author J.G. Ballard makes a significant comment in the foreword to his best-selling novel Crash. He argues that the task of literature used to be the creation of fiction, but as we live in fiction in today’s world, the task of literature has curiously reversed: “today, literature needs to re-create reality.”6

A series of cabins oriented in relation to sun, wind and water were built in 2005 as part of the Ghost 7 workshop. Photo by James Steeves

A series of cabins oriented in relation to sun, wind and water were built in 2005 as part of the Ghost 7 workshop. Photo by James Steeves

In my view, this comment applies precisely to today’s architecture. The fantasy world of today’s architecture needs to be directed back to real existential concerns. The architecture of reality arises from location, function and technique, the recognition of human historicity and the history of architecture itself, as well as the realities of human behaviour, interactions and emotions. This, I believe, is the ground of the “natural philosophy of architecture” that may oppose today’s fabricated intellectuality and the aestheticization of the architectural image. I place Brian MacKay-Lyons in the category of the responsible architects, who are determined to defend and protect the sanity of the human being and culture. And the sanity of architecture, I must add.

The great task of architecture is to enable us to dwell in this world with dignity. As we are increasingly becoming alienated travellers in an alien land, architecture’s task in creating a domicile for us is increasingly crucial. It is clear that aesthetic aspirations are a crucial part of the realist position as well. As philosopher Karsten Harries suggests, “The experience of beauty of the environment promises a genuine homecoming.”7

Finnish architect and professor Juhani Pallasmaa is the former dean of the Helsinki University of Technology.

1 Joseph Brodsky, Watermark. Penguin Books, 1992, p. 70.
2 Jorge Luis Borges, On Writing. The Eco Press, 1994, p. 53.
3 Paul Valéry, ”Eupalinos or the Architect” in Dialogues. Pantheon Books, 1956, p. 107.
4 Alvar Aalto, ”Interview for Finnish Television, July 1977” in Alvar Aalto in His Own Words. Otava Publishing Company, 1997, p. 74.
5 Aulis Blomstedt (1906-79), from a lecture in the early 1960s at the Helsinki University of Technology.
6 J.G. Ballard, foreword to Crash—Kolari. Loki-Kirjat, 1996, p. 8.
7 Karsten Harries, ”Transcending Aesthetics: Architecture and the Sacred” from a lecture at the Transcending Architecture—Aesthetics and Ethics of the Numinous conference at the Catholic University of America, Washington DC, October 7-8, 2011.




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