Ghost: Building an Architectural Vision

Ghost is a collection of essays written by visiting critics and professors who were involved between 1994 and 2003 with Ghost Lab, the brainchild of Canadian architect Brian MacKay-Lyons. Ghost Lab is a two-week summer internship for students who pay upwards of $4,000 to engage in a design/build workshop on the MacKay-Lyons family farm. The 400-year-old property is meant to be a sort of vernacular inspiration that puts students in touch with place. The Lab exposes students of architecture to the notion of apprenticeship– involving not only builders and architects– but land and history.

The Lab takes place near Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. As a self-fashioned village architect, MacKay-Lyons has hosted nine Ghost Labs to date, each of which has been facilitated by a renowned figure who contributes to the book. It is unfortunate that the nine essays by the contributors read like a series of self-congratulatory revelations of professionals giddy with the fact that they have finally swung a hammer without hurting anyone. While all of these essays are readable–and some enjoyable–as a body they lack the critical balance that one might hope would examine more squarely the role of design/build in architectural education. Not one of the essays sufficiently cross-examines the Lab, and the tone of the essays grows tiresome. When all is said and done, Ghost Lab is an architect’s summer camp.

However, it is in the series of nine other anecdotes that follow each of these essays where Ghost the book comes alive. These are written by MacKay-Lyons himself, and he clearly gets the point of the exercise. Ghost is about the people and sense of place that inhabit the architecture we inherit, seen or unseen. MacKay-Lyons’s musings about the act of architecting within certain physical and cultural ecologies are told in a perfect Maritime tone: stories that are straight-up, human, whimsical, and purposefully informative all at once. Who could soon forget a yarn about advances in local building practice that involve cedar shingles and fish gut? These are the pieces that linger, and through them, Ghost clearly suggests that architecture without a story is not architecture. In between its essays and in between its structure is Ghost, and therein, the story. PS

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