Rock, Box, Reveal

PROJECT Bridge House, East Port Medway, Nova Scotia
ARCHITECT MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects
TEXT Ian Chodikoff
PHOTOS Greg Richardson, unless otherwise noted

A two-hour drive from Halifax, this south shore weekend retreat situated near Liverpool is an informative and revealing case study that illustrates the design evolution of Brian MacKay-Lyons and his Halifax-based firm. Although the house may lack strict conceptual rigour and coherence, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects used this opportunity to experiment with architectural concepts deployed on previous projects, and to evolve others to drive future commissions–notably those pertaining to the inhabitation of the landscape.

Several ideas that exist in much of the firm’s work and which relate to site, craft and the layering of living spaces are embedded in the Bridge House, yet the architecture is not flawless, nor is it considered by MacKay-Lyons to be one of his finest works. Nonetheless, the project does attempt architectural purity and resolution in keeping with the firm’s evolving portfolio.

The client is a former architecture student of MacKay-Lyons who eventually became a developer in Montreal before relocating with his wife and children to the Maritimes. For MacKay-Lyons, one of the perks of being an architecture professor is that over the years, a number of his students have commissioned work from him. In the case of the Bridge House, it was important for the client, an aspiring patron of the arts, to seek a unique architectural expression of his home from his former teacher.

As is typical of his design methodology, MacKay-Lyons begins the architectural process by walking the site with his client. By the middle of the day, they’ll have a concept, and by the end of the day, they’ll have arrived at a scheme–usually at the local tavern or at Tim Hortons. For the Bridge House, the process was no different. MacKay-Lyons took his former student through the site and found two enormous granite boulders in a heavily wooded area. Between the boulders was a ravine, which inspired the concept of building a bridge connecting the two boulders, and to live within that bridge–hence, the Bridge House.

However, shortly after the initial design was completed, the client drove out to the architect’s house late one night, informing him that he needed to insert a granny suite beneath the bridge. MacKay-Lyons told him that the house’s concept would be destroyed but the client insisted. As a result, the architectural purity of the Bridge House was compromised. The initial scheme was premised upon a consistent system of thinking whereby one detail could be carried through the entire project, but as soon as the granny flat was inserted beneath the bridge, everything changed. What was supposed to be a scheme based on one long galvanized box truss became a wooden house attached to a steel specialty item. Since MacKay-Lyons views his work along a continuum, he is currently designing another bridge-inspired building measuring 160′ x 12′ x 12′, a house in Cape Breton overlooking the ocean that meets the ground using only three concrete fins. Without the lessons learned from the Bridge House, the Cape Breton House would never have materialized the way it did.

A large porch-like exterior space forms the entry to Bridge House on one end while a smaller porch terminates the other end. Upstairs, the much larger sleeping area is sheathed in vertical cedar boards, creating a pronounced lantern effect. The design concept of the sleeping quarters was inspired by recent work emerging from MacKay-Lyons’s well-known Ghost Lab summer design/build internship program; here delaminated rustic wood boxes are pulled away from the ground plane and hover above a pavilion-like space below. The origins of the Bridge House’s lantern can also be seen in his earlier Nova Scotia House 22, a well-publicized residence comprised of two wooden boxes delicately sited on two hilltops. As the envelope floats away from the ground plane, the distinctive “lantern-ness” that MacKay-Lyons has been carefully exploring for years is achieved.

With its generously proportioned outdoor living areas, there are many possibilities in which nature can be experienced: outdoors and unencumbered with the trees overhead, within the lantern, beneath the bridge, or inside the screened-in porch. The ambiguous indoor-outdoor aspects of the living area result from the hollowing-out of space at the ground-floor level, but the central experience of the house is undoubtedly the double-height space of the porch area which serves as the social hub. According to MacKay-Lyons, the indoor spaces, especially on the ground floor, take on the role of “residential infrastructure.”

The Bridge House was difficult to detail, possibly due to the fact that the architects had a tough time resolving the compromised clarity of the scheme. This created design challenges associated with connecting engineered wood products to lumber or galvanized steel in a way that would allow the architecture to align seamlessly. Many architectural elements weren’t initially working in unison and the architectural concept of the project wasn’t automatically resolving the details throughout the design and construction process. “I’m all about getting that clean and simple concept,” MacKay-Lyons admits, “so I became frustrated when the resolution of the design didn’t work. Sometimes you get a clean concept that tells you exactly what to do and there is very little doubt about what to do. This house was different.”

On a more positive note, the large box-like lantern successfully holds the architectural elements together, even though the project was initially driven by a structurally derived concept. The overall composition reads as a treehouse, when observed from a rocky outcrop. That rocky ground plane creates a foundation–the house appears to barely touch the ground. The lantern above hovers independently over the rock, remaining an element unto itself. In between those two elements is the reveal, that important space in the middle which includes the indoor and outdoor living spaces. As MacKay-Lyons states, “Almost all of our projects have this idea where you sleep in a man-made box and live in the crack between that box and the land.” Emerging from that rocky outcrop, the Bridge House presents itself as an impressive layering exercise in residential design.

Other elements of the house include ideas that relate to view, permanence and materiality. Contrasting the lumpiness of the site is the view toward the flat horizon line of the water, an element that is quite palpable, especially from the ground-floor living spaces. MacKay-Lyons sees the building and boat culture of the Maritimes as mobile and untethered to the landscape, giving a sense of impermanence to his buildings. “In the Maritimes,” he remarks, “buildings are floated across the island or dragged by oxen–everything is moveable.” In that sense the Bridge House exudes this philosophy of building. Another aspect that is perhaps more implied than specific is MacKay-Lyons’s desire to bring out the importance of a relaxed approach to architecture that doesn’t expressly rely on craft to legitimate an elevated architectural experience in our everyday world. “Sometimes it is necessary to move away from craft because there is a real conspicuous consumption or fetishization of materiality,” declares MacKay-Lyons. From this perspective, the Bridge House achieves this ideal, one that is about heightening our relationship to nature, providing an opportunity to live within a site’s complete physical environment. CA

Client withheld
Architect Team Brian Mackay-Lyons, Justin Bennett, tienne Lemay, Talbot Sweetapple
Structural Michel Comeau
Landscape Elaine Steinberg Landscaping
Contractor Raphael & Steinberg Construction Inc.
Area 2,900 ft2
Budget withheld
Completion 2007