Canadian Architect

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Rooted in the Vernacular, Reaching for Abstraction

In his house projects, Brian Mackay-Lyons deftly navigates between the twin poles of tradition and modernity.

June 2, 2015
by Christine Macy

the howard house (1999)

The Howard House (1999) was conceived as inhabitable land art for an art historian and his family. Photo by James Steeves

TEXT Christine Macy

When I first came to Nova Scotia in 1993, Brian MacKay-Lyons had completed a number of houses. Many of them were informed by the traditional urban house types of Halifax’s North End, where he lives.

A few years later, I was on a Canada Council jury when he submitted House on the Nova Scotia Coast No. 12 (1997) for a Governor General’s Medal. What this jury of eminent architects said about the work fascinated me. The entries were anonymous, and at first they weren’t sure if it was Brian’s project. The elegant graphics of the presentation suggested it might be—but they felt the design was… a little more “out there” than they would have expected from him. So they turned to me and asked if I knew who, in Nova Scotia, might have designed this project. In the conversation that followed, it was clear these peers valued abstract over iconographic work, and happily, House No. 12 fell into this camp.

House 22 (1998) includes two lantern-like pavilions, oriented on a north-south axis across a wetland. Photo by James Steeves

House 22 (1998) includes two lantern-like pavilions, oriented on a north-south axis across a wetland. Photo by James Steeves

After that experience—perhaps I was paying more attention—I noticed that Brian MacKay-Lyons was moving towards purer, less iconographic geometries in House No. 22 (1998) and the Howard House (1999). This appeared to be a developmental trajectory: one beginning with an exploration into the potentialities of the vernacular followed by a conscious movement towards a more Modernist language. What intrigued me about this shift was that Brian still talked about the work as a Nova Scotia vernacular language—not in its form, but in its construction, using tight envelopes and shingled cladding. And he continued to position his work in relation to a settled landscape, although he was looking less at houses and more at sheds and barns.

A spa was added to House 22 in 2009, designed to evoke a monolithic wood block. Photo by Greg Richardson

A spa was added to House 22 in 2009, designed to evoke a monolithic wood block. Photo by Greg Richardson

When I asked Brian about whether he consciously oriented his work away from the vernacular and towards abstraction, he said, “it’s true and not true.” What happens instead, he explained, is that vernacular forms get transformed in every project and at every different scale. “It just keeps recycling…you keep coming back to the well. The vernacular is the well.” People are drawn to the work of Brian MacKay-Lyons by its promise of dipping into this well of a simpler life—a more meaningful and authentic life that’s represented in the idea of craft and tradition. Through his work, they can feel continuity with the past and make sense of their place in the world.

People outside of Nova Scotia are often interested in Brian’s work because of its abstraction—in Brian’s view, this gives his work currency. Abstraction allows people to connect with a finely crafted home that belongs to a place, while avoiding the taint of kitsch. To use the language of architectural theory, the work exemplifies “Critical Regionalism”.1 One great appeal of Brian MacKay-Lyons’ houses is the counterpoint they present: the purity of abstract geometry juxtaposed against an evocative and historically resonant cultural landscape. It’s the juxtaposition of the two that generates the charge. Floating in clear ethereal sunlit space with floor-to-ceiling glass, hovering above a spectacular nature.

Designed for the twin brother of a previous client, Leahey #2 House (2009) borrows the narrow, gabled roof forms of local Scottish barns. The four volumes frame a series of courtyards with unique microclimates. Photo by Greg Richardson

Designed for the twin brother of a previous client, Leahey #2 House (2009) borrows the narrow, gabled roof forms of local Scottish barns. The four volumes frame a series of courtyards with unique microclimates. Photo by Greg Richardson

The abstract forms are not platonic solids, but archetypes of enclosure derived from vernacular forms. In his most recent formulation, Brian describes them as “gables, lean-tos, wedges and boxes,” adding, “I’ve always been interested in things that are archetypal.” The archetype, for Brian, is an architectural strategy that mediates between tradition and abstraction. After all, what is an archetype, but an abstraction of a tradition? Between tradition and modernity, place and abstraction, local and global, Brian’s work resonates with this tension between two idealized states. Unlike much contemporary architecture, it is rooted in a place, but he also wants it to be modern.

As he puts it, “I always felt the need to be modern. The person who said this best is Octavio Paz. ‘Taken alone, tradition stagnates and modernity vaporizes. Taken together, modernity breathes life into tradition, and tradition responds by providing depth and gravity.’”2 That creates a kind of resonance that people respond to.

martin-lancaster house (2010)

Martin-Lancaster House (2010) is a study in material
restraint, with cedar-shingled walls and roofs that respond well to the local marine climate. Photo by Greg Richardson

Participatory Design  
Back in 2008, I interviewed Brian about his office’s approach to participatory design for university buildings.3 Inspired by Giancarlo De Carlo and Charles Moore, his interest in participatory design is about “social agency and coming up with spaces that are good for community.” But in private houses, there is another dynamic that also involves participatory design, one that establishes an emotional affiliation between owner and architect and a sense of a shared adventure. Brian is genuinely curious about his clients.

“I find it so fun to meet these people,” he says. “You’re not just with your own ideas—you’ve got these really interesting characters. In my case, it’s a real interest in learning. I had a learning disability as a child, and I could only learn by asking questions. That was great—it prepared me for architecture. So I ask people questions and try to find out what they’re all about. That is the grist for the intellectual journey.”

This journey is an experience shared by owner and architect. For Brian, it leads towards abstraction and not imagery, towards architectural ideas and not personal taste: “I take them away from taste.”

The muscular Bridge House (2011) spans between two bedrock outcrops parallel to the sea. Photo by Greg Richardson

The muscular Bridge House (2011) spans between two
bedrock outcrops parallel to the sea. Photo by Greg Richardson

Working in Nova Scotia  
After completing his graduate studies in Los Angeles, Brian MacKay-Lyons moved back to Nova Scotia to practice architecture, and he has been anchored there ever since. Atlantic Canada has been an inspiring context for the creation of his work.

He recalls, “When I was in Los Angeles, the first thing Larry Halprin asked us to do was to draw a cognitive map of where we came from. I drew a landscape that I grew up in, where my ancestors have lived on one hilltop for 5,000 years. The house I grew up in was Charles La Tour’s house—he was the Governor of Acadia who was my ancestor. That was a permanent Mi’kmaq village, and he went and just moved in. So, I got my Métis card. That’s where I grew up: in that house, on that hilltop, in that Acadian landscape, that marshland. Anyway, I drew it for him. Larry Halprin said he’d never seen anybody with a deeper understanding of where they came from. That’s why I didn’t stay in Los Angeles. I wasn’t going to ever stay there, because of the pull back.”

The shed-like Danielson Cottage (2005) includes an uninsulated living and deck space that can be closed for the winter. Photo by Undine Proul

The shed-like Danielson Cottage (2005) includes an uninsulated living and deck space that can be closed for the winter. Photo by Undine Proul

Reception of his work in Atlantic Canada, he says, “has been spotty.” Is there a market for the beautiful, well-crafted building in a culture that values thrift, economy and practicality? On reflection, Brian finds that people who best understand and appreciate his work in Atlantic Canada are craftsmen, artists, arts patrons, and passionate advocates of good design. Of the builders, he says that craftsmen and carpenters “really get it.” He adds, “Because our work is essentially rational, they don’t have any trouble with it.”

In its single-minded pursuit of architectural ideas beautifully realized, Brian says that his firm’s work has a relationship to art and artists: “It seems to be almost part of that discourse.” In his view, the best clients for his practice are people who are drawn to Atlantic Canada and those from the Maritimes “who go out in the world, and then move back…they’ve got the combination of worldliness and also the local material culture and appreciation for simplicity.”

Sliding House (2008) is located along a 250-year-old stone wall, angling down a hillside towards a lake. Photo by Greg Richardson

Sliding House (2008) is located along a 250-year-old stone wall, angling down a hillside towards a lake. Photo by Greg Richardson

As Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Dalhousie University, where Brian has taught for over 30 years, I appreciate that he feels that “being part of the school is another way of being engaged in a world that’s part of abstraction—a place that’s more interested in art and architecture than [people] on the street are.” A school of architecture is not only a place where the craft of design is learned and ideas are passed on, it is a place where architectural ideas are debated and developed. We are very fortunate to have Brian MacKay-Lyons contributing to this discourse at Dalhousie.

Christine Macy is Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Dalhousie University.

1 Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance” in The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay Press, 1983.
2 Octavio Paz, Nobel lecture, 1990.
3 Christine Macy, “Participatory design on campus: three recent university buildings by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects” in Canadian Architect, July 2008.

 




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