Plain Modern: The Architecture of Brian MacKay-Lyons

By Malcolm Quantrill. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005. 223 pages, $54.00.

Review by John Ota.

The visually compelling photographs, sketches and drawings combined with the straightforward writing of Brian MacKay-Lyons are the strengths of the recently published Plain Modern.

The book is a journey of the MacKay-Lyons practice from early houses in Nova Scotia, stepping up to larger projects such as academic buildings and then finally, the design of the Canadian High Commission in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Essays from author Malcolm Quantrill, Kenneth Frampton and 2002 Pritzker Laureate Glenn Murcutt also appear in the publication. However, it is the stories from the architect himself that is the reason to pick up this book. Hunkering down with the book is similar to sitting across the table with the architect in his office over a cup of coffee as he pulls out drawings, sketches and models and explains the challenges of each project.

As an architect and professor living in Halifax, MacKay-Lyons has distinguished himself by adopting a contextualist approach in crafting a contemporary, stripped-down architecture. The photographs in the book reveal a distilling down of the essential elements of Nova Scotia barns, industrial sheds and fishing boats, and their incorporation into a plain and simple geometry. Translation: there are no allusions to romanticism here.

Of all the residential projects, the Howard House is the most astounding. Only 12 feet wide, the architect morphs into an illusionist, framing the view to the sea to make the visitor forget about the narrow confines of the house. Echoing the industrial ambience of a cannery, the galvanized metal house is an easy fit with the weather-beaten wharves and seaside landscape of Pennant Bay, Nova Scotia.

However, it is the newer, larger public projects that are the most provocative. Hard-edged and technologically sophisticated, the Faculty of Computer Science Building is presented by a collection of drawings and models that describe the design story of the Dalhousie University facility.

The finale of the book presents plans for the Canadian High Commission in Dhaka that elevate the office to a new level. Rough sketches and photographs of models illustrate the process that leads up to an impressive architectural scheme. In addition, the MacKay-Lyons narrative outlines the importance of combining indigenous and Canadian values into the design as well as picking up on local architectural cues. However, the book would benefit from photos of the site surroundings since context is the thesis of the project.

“What I am most proud of with the book is that we aren’t a one-hit office,” says MacKay-Lyons. “We have a strong body of work from houses to public buildings, and we are continually striving for clarity and simplicity that avoids the fashion of the day.”

While the book has been in the making for four years, publication has also coincided with the introduction of new partner Talbot Sweetapple, who seems to add a shot in the arm to the office’s pursuit of larger, public buildings. By scoring prestigious projects, adding new energy to the line-up and attracting international attention to its portfolio, the new partnership might be in the midst of shaking up contemporary architecture in Canada.