Canadian Architect


Young Modern

A client comes to appreciate the value of a modernist aesthetic for his family's new home on one of Halifax's grandest residential avenues.

July 1, 2007
by Canadian Architect





Down in the Maritimes, they say it’s the same old story: hardly anything changes. Yet, as a Haligonian who has lived away for several years now, every homecoming for me reveals a city that is constantly evolving. As one example, on a fine old street in Halifax, the city’s built story has quietly changed with the addition of a new and modern house.

Young Avenue in Halifax has always enjoyed a certain local cachet, lined with grand, old homes on sizeable properties. On the city’s peninsula, limited space on which to construct new homes has altered the historic street’s original rhythm of large houses on gracious lots. These estates are gradually being severed and infilled with new houses built in a traditional style. Despite these changes, a character of authenticity and grandeur is retained. Part of the reason is because the street is not an exclusive enclave of privileged privacy, but kind of a public promenade. Point Pleasant Park’s 186 acres are on the southernmost tip of the peninsula. On any given day, traffic from all over the city arrives in the form of joggers, walkers, cyclists, and cars–all heading for the park. Only two routes lead to the park, and Young Avenue is one of them.

When we think of a Brian MacKay-Lyons house, our preconceived notions of his work conjure up a site somewhere on the edge of the world: a windswept coast and a building straddling the line between horizon and sky. Some may recall that MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects (MLSA), the firm he helms with partner Talbot Sweetapple, had its early beginnings via several infill houses (including MacKay-Lyons’ own) in Halifax’s gritty and tight-knit north end. Twenty-plus years ago, these early projects played a significant role in a neighbourhood rejuvenation that continues to this day. In some ways, this latest project on Young Avenue signifies a homecoming moment for the firm. It is one of several new buildings located in Halifax–including a new Port Campus for the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design–that mark an increased visibility for MLSA within the city it calls home.

I once heard a CBC radio interview with MacKay-Lyons, and he commented on traditional-looking new buildings, offering an optimistic view of our culture that rejects the idea that “we were good once, but not anymore.” Surely, architecture that speaks of history in the present can mean something beyond recreating the past–a formaldehyde approach that stops the march of time. As an alternative, the work of MLSA references cultural values, translating them into a modern vocabulary. Make no mistake: modernity is not necessarily interchangeable with modesty. Today’s tendencies towards conspicuous consumption are evident in many new houses, both traditional and modern, often designed with exotic materials and intricately fetished details. MLSA houses, built of local materials and methods, do not occupy this realm. In their own straightforward way, they attempt what MacKay-Lyons calls “silence” in a noisy world.

Is it ironic then, that a simple and modern house has appeared on one of Halifax’s most historic streets? Neighbours in the area who prefer heritage replication (not to be confused with restoration or conservation) as a way to maintain the street’s historic character surely would have liked a more traditional “Maritime” house. Something perhaps, like the new, incongruous suburban infills further up the street. I would argue that the irony of Young Avenue is Young Avenue itself: in a city and culture that frowns upon showiness, the street is an anomaly. On it, the houses, old and new, are clearly on display. Though perhaps not identifiable to the average person, centuries-old history and tradition is the anchor of MLSA’s work. One could suggest that their work is even more “traditional” (Maritime-specific) than most of the Victorian and newer homes on Young Avenue. Four hundred years ago, the first Maritime buildings to appear in this part of the world were very simple structures that provided shelter from the elements. MLSA’s growing collection of projects reflects upon a culture that shuns conceit in favour of modesty, and, through a language of detailing, celebrates living beside the most unpredictable of neighbours: the ocean.

At the outset, the clients did not know that they were in for a modern house. Their previous home was a typical Victorian, and they simply wanted an open-plan design that provided accessibility for a wheelchair-bound family member. A modern house was not their first priority, but they became actively involved in the process, working closely with MacKay-Lyons and intern architect Jesse Hindle. “Colleagues often comment that we manage to find more clients who want modern architecture in the Maritimes than in the larger, wealthier cities of our country,” says MacKay-Lyons, “but it’s not that our clients are always patrons of modern work. Once they connect intellectually with the project, that’s where the understanding comes from.”

Designed for a family of four, the house and its large lot is seconds from Point Pleasant Park. Its one-storey open plan gradually rises to two, genially addressing the street. Behind the lower quarter of the front faade is the garage, large enough for a wheelchair-accessible van yet cleverly concealed. Clad in clear white cedar, the garage door integrates well with the rest of the faade, giving itself away only when open. If only the neighbouring houses, eclipsed by their prominent garages, would take a cue from such an obvious and simple solution. On the day of my visit, I am led around the side of the house to the entrance. The small, low volume that I pass through makes a Maritime reference to a “saddlebag”–side additions typically added to Maritime shed buildings as money and necessity permit. Beyond this antechamber, the front “parlour” is a double-height space offering a screened view to the street as well as a clear view to the private inner courtyard. Front to back, the house is a straightforward study of domestic shelter. Tall, open principal spaces for eating and gathering gradually taper towards a more intimate, private realm of sleeping and bathing. The open plan is very well suited to the need for accessibility, accommodating free movement as well as specific equipment for lifting and mobility. Service spaces are very clear and figure most prominently as a 52-foot continuous piece of cherry cabinetry, at times a kitchen counter, a place of storage, and a hearth. Located between two volumes or buried within one, voids are often at the heart of many MLSA homes, relating to the outer landscape beyond the built realm; the ocean becomes the object, with the house as its frame. Here in the city, the void in this house is a secret: unseen from the street is an outdoor courtyard carved out of the plan. It extends the main living space and takes advantage of the sun’s southern rays. Instead of a typical backyard, this yard lies at the side, viewed through 84 feet of glass and embraced by the house itself.

MLSA houses, like true Maritimers, never put their best jewels on display. And why should they? Western capitalist culture is all about “more is more,” and encountering the opposite is rare. With its modern yet spare expression, this house on Young Avenue is obviously “different” (polite Maritime term for “unusual”) from the other homes on the street, and in this sense, is not silent. Silence comes in the details (crisp, unadorned), the entrance (hidden, around the side), and its relationship to the street (flush with the ground plane, unraised). This kind of simplicity and restraint offers up a suggestion that it is possible to be modern and modest while referencing the past. Is a MacKay-Lyons house more compelling on a remote ocean site than on a city block? There is nothing like standing alone beside the ocean, whispering or shouting y
our secrets into the wind. Then again, the city has its own stories to tell. And if a city’s built history was nothing more than a one-liner, the telling of its story would be short indeed.

Nova Tayona is an intern architect working at Ian MacDonald Architect Inc. in Toronto.

CLIENT withheld

ARCHITECT TEAM Brian MacKay-Lyons, Jesse Hindle, Peter Blackie

STRUCTURAL Campbell Comeau

BUILDER Special Projects

AREA 3,500 FT2

BUDGET withheld


Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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