Canadian Architect


The Boys of Gottingen Street

Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects' New Office Building Asserts Itself in An Under-Appreciated Area of Halifax.

September 1, 2005
by Ian Chodikoff

Project New Office for Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects

Architect Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Ltd.

Text Ian Chodikoff

Located on rough and neglected Gottingen Street in Halifax, the new offices of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects (MLSA) have recently been completed in a neighbourhood that has not seen much development since the early 1960s. With Talbot Sweetapple recently joining Brian MacKay-Lyons as a new partner, the practice is poised to undergo transitions coupled with the design and construction of a new office. Attempting to provide an idealized work environment, the studio is raised one level from the street, and the workspace becomes a sanctuary. In Plain Modern, a new book on MacKay-Lyons by Malcom Quantrill, the subject refers to his new office as a “temple of work.” As a practice, MLSA will continue to remain true to the spirit of their approach to design that is conscious of formal architectural devices while recognizing the integrity of materials and the nature of site. Their much-anticipated Canadian High Commission in Dhaka, opening in the Spring of 2006, signals the firm’s ambitious goal of designing one or two larger public projects a year. Wanting to practice what they preach, Sweetapple describes the effort in creating an architectural space as “putting our money where our mouth is.” MLSA currently has a staff of 13 including two administration staff, and hopes to maintain the office at roughly the same size.

For their new offices, the architects also took on the role of developer. The building is an infill project located on a through-block site that is intended to be subdivided to include four townhouses sometime in the future. While remaining an open atelier on the interior, the Gottingen Street elevation takes on a rather defensive strategy. The entrance is beneath a 52-foot-long steel lintel complete with a 32-foot sliding steel gate. The site holds two terraced levels along the southwest-facing courtyard along the back of the building. The lower terrace extends out from the entrance level and is treated with a gravel surface. Due to the orientation of the building, this courtyard has its own microclimate where staff will be able to extend the warm season by an extra two weeks. MLSA is in the process of installing a monolithic foot-thick wooden table measuring an astounding 2 x 20 for their courtyard space. This massive piece of wood will eventually find itself sitting on two large pieces of stone as a base. The upper-level terrace conceals an area for parking behind a granite wall that is constructed with hand-split stones salvaged from a 19th-century foundation in Lunenberg County.

There is no reception area but an informal foyer-type arrival with a domestically scaled living room. Conference rooms, administration, kitchen and washrooms are located in an asymmetrically placed service core with circulation wrapping around the core and leading up through a shaft containing a narrow stair with bar grating.

The main studio floor is 80 feet long by 25 feet wide with a 20-foot-high ceiling. A 40-foot-long communal table sits in the middle of this large and open workspace. Two storeys of cabinets anchor the room and emphasize its verticality, while large pin-up surfaces composed of drywall float proud of the exposed concrete block by nearly two inches. In this way of looking at such simple materials, the drywall becomes the foreground with a block wall behind. Of these large drywall surfaces–affectionately known as “kites”–one is actually a barn door that acts as a shutter for the large 20 x 18 window. Above the studio floor, there are small workrooms with meeting rooms oriented toward the courtyard.

The building’s skin is comprised of exposed double-wythe load-bearing concrete block walls that are 18 inches thick. Exposed concrete slabs comprise the flooring for the lower levels while the second floor and roof are framed with open-web steel joists with 2* x 6* tongue-and-groove spruce decking. The ceilings in the public areas are finished in 1* x 6* tongue-and-groove hemlock.

In improving both the neighbourhood and the office’s work environment, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects have adopted a formal strategy of symmetrical plans with asymmetrical treatment of the building’s section and envelope’s compositions. “There’s nothing elitist about the building,” notes Sweetapple who would rather see his details disappear than exist as ornament. By assembling a bunch of wood, joists and concrete blocks, the architecture is about bringing light into the space and creating a variety of experiences relating to volume, space and proportion. Hopefully, the new office’s presence will bring a greater sense of confidence to an underdeveloped Halifax streetscape.

Client/Developer Marilyn Mackay-Lyons

Architect Team Brian Mackay-Lyons, Talbot Sweetapple, Vincent Van Den Brink, Naomi Frangos, Mark Upton

Structural Campbell Comeau Engineering

Mechanical/Electrical Morris and Richard Consulting Engineers Ltd.

Contractor Fitzgerald and Snow

Area 5,000 Ft2

Budget $825,000

Completion November 2003

Drawings Chad Jamieson, Etienne Lemay

Photography James Steeves

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