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Giving up the Ghost

This past summer saw the final edition of Ghost Lab, a series of successful research laboratories held on the Nova Scotia farm of Brian MacKay-Lyons since 1994. A select group of like-minded architects, historians and critics commiserated over the values of regionalism, craft and design.

August 1, 2011
by Canadian Architect

Text Trevor Boddy
Photos Cherish Rosas

A relocated and restored 19th-century octagonal barn was the unlikely venue for one of the more ambitious architectural gatherings Canada has seen in recent years. At the centre of the octagon, the inevitable focus of the Ghost 13: Ideas in Things symposium was Halifax architect Brian MacKay-Lyons: the event was hosted on his farmland outside Lunenburg, it featured his personal network of like-minded designers, and the talks celebrated the Ghost Lab building workshops he has conducted there. While the dozen previous Ghost Labs since 1994 brought architectural celebrities to design and build with students, this was the first one in symposium rather than construction workshop mode, and it took four days for its rich program of ideas, images and interchange to play out.

Featured speakers included some of the world’s leading historians and critics of architecture–Kenneth Frampton of New York, Juhani Pallasmaa of Helsinki, Tom Fisher of Minneapolis, and Peter Buchanan of London. They were joined by Glenn Murcutt of Sydney and a large number of American architects of MacKay-Lyons’s vintage and design predilections: Marlon Blackwell, Tom Kundig, Rick Joy, Wendell Burnette, Dan Rockhill and many others. Nearly all of these architects and historian critics were participants in one or more of the previous dozen Ghost Labs, and the symposium had a strong, perhaps overly strong, retrospective flavour.

MacKay-Lyons repeatedly referred to the gathered designers as “architects from the boonies.” The best rejoinder to this came from New Yorker Deborah Berke, whose witty and welcome presentation of urban loft conversions was prefaced with “I’m from Queens–believe me, no place is as boonies as Queens!” Two of the strongest presentations of work came from Canadian women, Brigitte Shim and Patricia Patkau. Patkau, in particular, insisted that there was no linkage or singular line of thought in the work of the designers gathered there: “There is a presumption that we are a movement, but we are not–we are on many different trajectories.” With Patkau’s clear include-me-out statement of any emerging pastoral alliance, the keener lads may in future be reduced to labelling themselves the “Boonies Boys” or the “Scotia Brothers.” While some called for a concluding manifesto along the lines of a Country and Eastern CIAM declaration, MacKay-Lyons wisely resisted issuing a singular wrap-up document. Still, the sense of an emerging club hung in the air right through to the last set of a barn dance featuring a Halifax blues band. I was deeply impressed that MacKay-Lyons personally pulled off the event independent of any institution, though this independence necessitated a very steep registration fee of nearly $3,000 per participant (including taxes, excluding lodging). Given the range and depth of programming over four days, and the generosity of spirit everywhere evident, this was good value.

The “all too much” moment occurred at the end of the last seminar, when the 20 speakers and 80 registrants gathered for a group photograph on a low wooden deck constructed by an earlier Ghost Lab (where groups of students gather with architectural “names” to design, then construct annual elements of the ever-evolving camp). As photographers snapped their final group shot, the deck groaned, cracked, and failed under all that weight of assembled ghost campers. This seemed to me the apt revenge of some ghost engineer, a departed soul who had wasted his life in this realm trying to teach structural principles to aspiring architects. “Load architects to failure!” is how one wag described the collapse, where luckily, no one was hurt. But it did bring home questions about what is to be done with the aging Ghost Lab camp, where a very un-Maritimes unpainted wood aesthetic hastens a rotted return to the fields from which it sprang. With this setting of the (unstable) stage and listing of dramatis personae, what follows is my weather-modified response to some of what I saw and heard at Ghost Lab 13 at Upper Kingsburg, Nova Scotia.

Night One: Sermon

While Ghost 13’s days were spent in the late spring muck of the Upper Kingsburg farm, most evenings participants were shuttled down to talks at Lunenburg’s St. John’s Anglican Church, there being extra room along its hard pews for busloads of Dalhousie architecture students. This masterpiece of Carpenter Gothic is one of Canada’s greatest buildings of the 19th century, severe in white walls and black-trimmed arches and finials outside, glowing with warm wood inside, and golden sprays of painted constellations arrayed above the altar-cum-lectern. Make that restored warm wood, as the church was nearly burned down by local miscreants in a Halloween prank a decade ago, but superbly restored since in a multi-million-dollar federal-provincial effort. 

There could be no more appropriate setting than an Anglican pulpit for the opening talk by Kenneth Frampton. A tendency towards Ruskinian moralizing–that mid-19th-century fusion of Christian faith and imperative design declarations that launched the Arts and Crafts, then the Modern Movement–has long been evident in Frampton’s texts and talks. In keeping with the retrospective tone of Ghost 13, Frampton’s lecture mainly revisited his most influential writing–the various iterations of his vision of Critical Regionalism (Frampton graciously noted the term was actually coined earlier by Greek Alexandre Tzonis and Canadian Liane Lefaivre). Frampton took the basic argument and examples of his 1983 essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points of an Architecture of Resistance” and updated them, dealing with key issues that have emerged since, such as sustainability.

He went on to mention his “North American Five,” a personal selection of the most important practitioners on this continent–by listing the Patkaus and Shim-Sutcliffe, his choices are 40% Canadian–who gathered for his 80th birthday celebration in New York last year, and who will be the subject of his next book. Whether six or eight points of Critical Regionalism, or a ranking of five or 15 North American faves, what is missing from Frampton’s list-making is the interrelationship of his listed points. Surely, it is more important to describe how to integrate concerns for such points as “sustainability” with “topography” or “civic form” than to merely list them separately–like the checklist at some oil-change joint. Similarly, we would all like to know more about what links–and separates–the work of Shim-Sutcliffe with the Patkaus and the others. In this, Frampton would do justice to his own ideas to be more, not less, Ruskinian. What’s crucial about John Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), for example, is that it presents more than independent definitions of those factors the critic thought essential to good design, but also effective rhetoric–a writerly weaving of each into a complete and integrated argument. On or near the main stage of architectural ideas for nearly three decades, Critical Regionalism demands the same treatment.

Day Two: Rain

I had not been to MacKay-Lyons’s Upper Kingsburg site since 1990, when we walked this magnificent stretch of bay, spit and rolling hillock with our children, before the first Ghost workshop had started. Even seen through lashings of late-spring rain and wind, the scene had become even more astonishing, with more than a dozen buildings constructed since, making this an essential stop for Atlantic architectural pilgrims. Dominating the scene is the octagonal barn, its structure relocated from the Annapolis Valley and re-walled and re-roofed where necessary. My surprise was how much the renovated structure resembles the floating Teatro del Mondo that Aldo Rossi designed for the 1979 Venice Biennale of Architecture. This proved not entirely inappropriate, as most architects presenting that day showed works exploring the rustic end of the range
of new possibilities that opened up after Postmodernism’s short, sharp palace coup.

Some of the most impressive designs shown the first day were from Marlon Blackwell of Arkansas. I had last seen and reviewed Blackwell’s work at the 2006 Banff Session (see CA, May 2006), and it has evolved interestingly. One example is Biloxi’s Porchdog House Prototype, a welcome bit of post-Katrina rebuilding that does not succumb to New Urbanist nostalgia. He described Fayetteville’s L-Stack House as a stacked or double-shotgun house, one rendered with a discipline of detail and space creation, making its suburban site shine.

MacKay-Lyons’s nominal theme for the first day was “place,” but the parade of exurban houses and suburban civic buildings by Rick Joy, Ted Flato and Wendell Burnette flowed one into the other. It rained outside, and it rained inside with handsomely detailed but interchangeable second and third homes in the sunbelt, relieved solely by Deborah Berke’s Manhattan interiors, a brief urban pit stop before a return to exurbia and yet more big houses. Prolific historian Robert McCarter’s talk was erudite but empty, with boilerplate quotes and aperçus that seldom connected with place, or even the idea of place. More interesting were Juhani Pallasmaa’s evening observations, mainly devoted to how sustainability is changing the idea and practice of architecture. Quoting Josef Brodsky that “Man is an aesthetic being before an ethical one,” and “The purpose of evolution is beauty,” Pallasmaa concluded that “Sustainability has to be transferred into a new sense of beauty.” Not quite what we hear from the Canada Green Building Council!

Day Three: Sun

The sun was sharp and brilliant the next day, and so were many of the presentations and subsequent discussions–the high point of Ghost 13. In welcome contrast with the too-similar work shown the first day, recent buildings by Canada’s two architectural power couples–Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe plus John and Patricia Patkau–demonstrated the increasing scale and confidence of both their practices. “Craft” was the assigned theme of the day, and craft was the means and the sometimes obsessive end for the work of Sydney’s Peter Stutchbury and Seattle’s Tom Kundig.

The debate was energized by Toronto’s Barry Sampson, who first declared that too much of the work shown up to that point in Ghost 13 relied on the “aestheticization of nature.” Sampson then reacted to a similarly romantic privileging of the hand-drawn and home-made by declaring, “Digitally driven manufacturing can revive craft traditions. It can make complex shapes feasible once again and it can attract young people back to the construction industry who enjoy problem-solving with computers.” There was no better illustration of Sampson’s point that day than the complex digitally milled stone pieces used at crucial plan junction points in Shim-Sutcliffe Architects’ Integral House for musician/mathematician James Stewart. Craft like this as the “finely made” versus craft as solely the “hand-made” brought out impassioned spiels pro and con. Are Tom Kundig’s retro-mechanical gizmos (chain-powered moveable windows, hydraulically lifted skylights, cabins on wheels) the triumph of contemporary craft, or imagistic throwaways? Coffee arrived just as the debate devolved into a discussion about whether the computer coding of design software is itself an exemplification of craft at its finest.

Critic Peter Buchanan continued the Ruskinian line of Ghost 13 by worrying that science and modernity had created separations from nature, craft and community. His conclusion was “reconnecting is the next wave,” and strongly praised the updating of Ruskin in Richard Sennett’s sleeper-hit book The Craftsman. Some of us warned about the object lesson of the Arts and Crafts movement’s own history, which evolved from Utopian hopes for the unity of workmen and their tools, to a few decades later, the production of ultra-luxury goods for a tiny elite by Morris & Company in England and the Greene Brothers in Pasadena. With their rustic villas and elaborately wrought details in wood and cast iron, are the Scotia Brothers the “New Arts and Crafts” movement and thereby doomed to a similar fate? Or will some reincarnation of Herman Muthesius or Peter Behrens come along to distill their essence, then spark another movement as powerful as the European Modern movement, one that takes the Arts and Crafts not as a goal but as a point of departure? That evening, Glenn Murcutt let random images of his work and Australian landscapes whirl by as he answered previously submitted questions from the audience. Murcutt’s answers were almost entirely biographical anecdotes, a warmly human means of bringing home ideas of “place” and “craft.”

Day Four: Fog

Alas, questions like these got lost in the fog of academe, which rolled in off the North Atlantic to obscure and cloak the arguments of the previous day. Everyone presenting on the final day held academic appointments, and most of the work presented was collaborative and community-involved student-professor constructions, such as the Ghost Lab encampment itself. There were lively and entertaining presentations by Steve Badanes of his University of Washington student work, and Andrew Freear of Auburn University’s Rural Studio in the years since he took over from late founder Samuel Mockbee. But a similar talk by Kansan Dan Rockhill also belonged in a separate conference on the topic, since the vast majority of this year’s participants were neither students nor full-time professors of architecture. A glacial narrative on the design of his own house by Dalhousie University’s Richard Kroeker made me wish for a global ban on professors publicly presenting their own residences. Former Progressive Architecture editor and now Dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, Thomas Fisher tantalized with a declaration that “Buildings are but one of the things architects will do in the future,” but it was too late in the proceedings for any to rise to his challenge.

Cued by appreciation of the graciousness of spirit, hard work, and entrepreneurship that had brought us all to his farm, Brian MacKay-Lyons’s concluding talk received a standing ovation not just at its end, but at its beginning. Declaring that “My projects are all about cultivating the landscape,” the talk was most interesting for its biographical themes and presentation of his recent Canadian Embassy in Dhaka (see CA, July 2011), but too many houses whipped by, and if there are emerging themes and ideas in his recent practice, they got lost in the avalanche of one boxy residence after another on the South Shore or Cape Breton coast.

Giving up the Ghost?

The Ghost Lab and spinoff events like this symposium (to be documented in a book and video) may well prove to be Brian MacKay-Lyons’s great legacy. If they are to be that, the backward glances and self-congratulation evident at Upper Kingsburg need to be replaced by wider frames of reference and an architectural gene pool more diverse than the Scotia Brothers. Conspicuous by his absence at Ghost 13 was Gander native Todd Saunders, whose studio pavilions for the Fogo Island Arts Corporation in Newfoundland (see CA, September 2010) is both a continuation of and a riposte to the design line begun in Halifax 20 years ago. Saunders is but one of the innovating young Canadian architects who should have replaced the too-similar American talents on the program.

More architects like Burkino Faso’s Francis Kéré (whose contribution was limited to a phone-in due to a sudden family death abroad) would enliven things, and future collaborative constructions might be better located in places like Burkina Faso, rather than further cluttering the magnificent slopes of Upper Kingsburg. Intellectually, the time of the Anglo-American axis of Frampton and friends has passed, but there is a lively new generation writing about landscape, craft, vernacular, and architectural making
in all its varied glory. Having indulged his generosity, my challenge to Brian MacKay-Lyons–now that you have had your needed Ghost retrospective–is to mount a reconceived event in a couple of years, packing that barn with the best and brightest. That, or give up the ghost. CA

Vancouver-based critic Trevor Boddy was co-organizer of the “TownShift: Suburb Into City” ideas competition for the City of Surrey, with the final publications now downloadable at www.townshift.ca.




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