Interview: Brian MacKay-Lyons

After graduating from Dalhousie and UCLA, Brian MacKay-Lyons worked in Siena for Giancarlo De Carlo.
After graduating from Dalhousie and UCLA, Brian MacKay-Lyons worked in Siena for Giancarlo De Carlo.

Brian MacKay-Lyons is the 2015 winner of the RAIC Gold Medal, the highest honour bestowed by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Canadian Architect recently spoke to Brian about his career trajectory, philosophy of practice, and sources of inspiration. Editor Elsa Lam reached him at his farm and satellite office in Kingsburg, Nova Scotia.

What made you decide to become an architect?

I grew up in a very powerful landscape, and it made me want to work with landscape. I was also fortunate to travel a lot as a child. I remember one day standing in the Roman forum. I was four years old. I was with my brother, and we were trying to reach around a column that was between us to measure it. I remember, clear as day: that was the moment I decided to be an architect. I never really lost that.

Can you talk about your experience in architecture school? You had some frustrations through it that seem to have fuelled your architectural practice.

I was going to quit architecture school at the end of my first year. Larry Richards, who was a professor there at the time, talked me into sticking with it.

I started the Ghost Lab because of my frustration with architectural education. The conference that we had in 2011 was called “Ideas in Things,” using William Carlos Williams’ quote: “Ideas only in things.” The world of ideas and the world of things in architecture seems, for a long time now, to be moving apart: the head and the hand, the world of practice and the world of architectural education. If someone’s interested in making things, then they’re targeted for trade school. And if someone is not interested in making things, we say that they’re interested in ideas.

But ideas without reality are nothing. As Williams says, “Ideas are built on the foundation of the world, not only vapour.” I still feel that way about architectural discourse in general, and I think that digital tools aren’t helping that.

MacKay-Lyons with his young children and mentor Charles Moore
MacKay-Lyons with his young children and mentor Charles Moore.

Tell me about the origins and evolution of your practice.

The day I graduated from my first professional degree at what is now Dalhousie, myself and two colleagues, Larry Richards and Eric Fiss, rented a space and started practicing. It was a company called Networks. Totally naïve. We just jumped right in there—it was really crazy.

Like a lot of people, I decided to go back to grad school to do a post-professional degree, partly to preserve my innocence—to not be forced to work in a conventional, soul-destroying office. One way to avoid that is to go to grad school and develop some antibodies to the numbing effect of conventional practice. Of course, if you’re a good student, you get teaching assistantships and you learn that you value teaching. I’ve always taught as a result of that experience.

A sketch by Brian MacKay-Lyons from his travels through Italy.
A sketch by Brian MacKay-Lyons from his travels through Italy.

I went to grad school at UCLA in Los Angeles and came back via Italy. I worked with Giancarlo De Carlo in Siena, and started a practice right away when I came back to Halifax. I took a teaching job at Dalhousie on January 3, 1983, and started practicing at the same time, until I found it impossible to do both. Then I cut back my teaching to half-time.

One great thing about teaching is you get to rob the cradle. You get to work with young people that are your students, and you know who they are as human beings. The best student that came through the school, in my whole time teaching anywhere, was Talbot Sweetapple. He was from Gander, Newfoundland. He worked for KPMB Architects in Toronto and he worked for Shin Takamatsu in Berlin, then he came back and began working for me. One day he announced, “My five-year plan is that I’m going to become your partner.” Which is exactly what happened.

MacKay-Lyons converted a gas station into his firm’s first office in Halifax, completing the site with four townhomes. Photo by James Steeves
MacKay-Lyons converted a gas station into his firm’s first office in Halifax, completing the site with four townhomes. Photo by James Steeves

At that point, the practice grew a little. The single practitioner, with a small group of young grads and students around, had to grow into something that made room for Talbot and his ambition to do public buildings as well as houses. We built ourselves a new office, our current office.

It’s funny that architects don’t work in spaces of their own making. If you need a place to work, why don’t you build one? The current space is a 20-person office on Gottingen Street in Halifax. Then there’s a satellite office in Kingsburg. In both cases, it was architect as developer, to enable it. So, on Gottingen Street we did four freehold lots and made 10 units out of it. In Kingsburg we built the Ghost cabins. On Falkland Street, where our house in the city is now, we built our office in an old gas station. We built four townhouses next to it to pay for it in 1990.

If you need something, why not go and make it? Of course, everyone says “you’re crazy”—and then it becomes the smartest thing you ever did because real estate is better than architecture, financially.

Right now, at Shobac, we’re building an intern’s cabin. This summer we start our first graduate architect/intern living in this metal shed that we’re building as part of an ongoing research in the minimum house. It’s making the practice more sustainable, in the sense that I can spend more time at the farm and have a viable staff here. For the house practice, that’s the brand, this kind of end-of-the-earth address.

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects's current office on Gottingen Street in Halifax.
MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects’s current office on Gottingen Street in Halifax.

I want to talk about the relation between your house practice and public projects. I was fascinated to learn that your very first projects were urban. It seems like there is a interesting cross-pollination between urban and rural projects, and also between the scales of the projects.

If we don’t have much time to have a conversation, we say that Talbot manages the public-scale stuff and I manage the residential-scale stuff. That’s a really simplified view of it. We’re always looking for that link between the two scales. There may be two scales but there’s only one body of work. The things that link them are the content: we talk about landscape, climate and material culture as the elements of place.

Landscape is very powerful. When you get to cities and a larger scale, the material culture aspects may be more difficult to establish, but the landscape part isn’t. The word landscape is really synonymous with the idea of environment, and an attitude towards sustainability and economy. But more importantly, it’s a kind of urbanism. I did my graduate work in urban design and worked with Giancarlo De Carlo and Barton Myers—people who were real urbanists—and that sat well with my landscape perspective.

Leahey #1 House (1993) is a linear vacation home designed to expand in the landscape, incorporating a guest house for extended family, and finally converting into a permanent retirement home. Photo by James Steeves
Leahey #1 House (1993) is a linear vacation home designed to expand in the landscape, incorporating a guest house for
extended family, and finally converting into a permanent retirement home. Photo by James Steeves

I would describe all of my houses in the countryside as proto-urban. They get their energy from a kind of urbanist attitude. They’re not isolated objects in the landscape, they’re context-derived. The Campo in Siena, where I used to live, was a field—and it’s the best urban space in the world, but campo means field. Whether you’re making a barnyard, a square in a city, or a quadrangle in a university, it’s really the same thing, in my view.

cliff house (2010) by mackay-lyons sweetapple architects.
intended as a repeatable prototype, Cliff House (2010) is a modest steel framed cabin perched precariously on a bedrock cliff. Photo by Greg Richardson

Half of the design of a house, for us, is getting to the front door, being taken through the landscape on a journey. If you develop the eyes to see context—whether it be climate, landform, or cultural history of a settlement—you can draw energy from those things that are basically already there and free for the taking. I was having a discussion with Tod Williams, and he said, “That’s the contribution of your practice: that research into using the energy of the world, of the landscape.” It enables us to make very inexpensive buildings because the content comes for free. You can get a lot of architecture out of that, and you don’t have to invent it. It’s already there, you just have to have the eyes to see it. De Carlo called it “reading the context.” Charles Moore called it “listening.” Listening, reading, seeing: it’s
a cultivated intuition in our work. All of our work is unified by that.

We’re doing a Beaverbrook Art Gallery extension in New Brunswick on the Saint John River. We’re on the river, we’re across from the legislature, we’re next to a beautiful park. So if you just take those into your project, you’re already almost half done.

two hulls house by mackay-lyons sweetapple architects
Two Hulls House (2011) is a full-time home for a family of four, consisting of two pavilions—one for day and one for night—that look out to sea like a pair of binoculars. Photo by Greg Richardson

It’s an analogous process to walking the land with a house client.

Exactly the same thing, I think. On a bad day, we say: how are we going to resolve the contradiction between these two scales, between urban and rural things? I resist that, because I don’t think there’s a problem. Architecture is a cultivating instrument, whether you’re rehabilitating a piece of urban fabric or whether you’re clearing land to restore a field in the countryside.

It leads into a question about the fascination your practice has with “zero”: the minimum house, the zero detail. It’s tied in to the idea of doing less with architecture, to do more with what’s already there. Could you speak more about this idea and where it is leading?

I gave a lecture in San Francisco and someone asked me after the talk, “What do you want to be doing in the future that you’re not already doing?” From a lifestyle point of view, I wouldn’t want to change anything. From an architectural point of view, I told that person that I would like to be able to make buildings that are more and more silent, but that had more to say.

There’s an idea of economy of means—it’s a universal value system. Historian Robert McCarter is writing a book on our practice. His working title is “Economy as Ethic.” Essy Baniassad said to me one time, “All culture derives from the poor.” As a Democrat, I think that’s absolutely right. Bumpkins like me want to believe that you don’t have to be born with a silver spoon and Ivy League-educated to be an architect.

in 1993, MacKay- Lyons’ firm built the first phase of an addition to the Dalhousie University Faculty of Architecture in the rear courtyard of the existing building. Photo by Paul Toman
in 1993, MacKay-Lyons’ firm built the first phase of an addition to the Dalhousie University Faculty of Architecture in the rear courtyard of the existing building. Photo by Paul Toman

The idea that all culture derives from the poor is about accessibility. To be socially relevant, architecture must be accessible, it must be affordable. I looked at people like Frank Lloyd Wright: he did Fallingwater but he also did the Usonian houses. You look at Ferdinand Porsche. He designed the Porsche but he also designed the Volkswagen. There’s a democratic ethic in this idea of economy. There’s also an aesthetic idea: if you’re a mathematician, there’s an aesthetic idea about the most economical formula, like E=mc2. In every field, whether you’re in business or science, or a researcher, this idea of economy of means is a primary idea.

The other word that we use, connected to economy, is elegance. I like to say that I want to have the elegance of a peasant. When we look at sustainability—which is a really overused branding word—you look at vernacular building traditions. The vernacular is what you do when you can’t afford to get it wrong. So that sense of immediacy that comes from modest means is a great source of strength for us.

A rendering of the intern’s cabin currently under construction at Shobac.
A rendering of the intern’s cabin currently under construction at Shobac.

You put this into action with your practice of taking on at least one house that’s under $100,000 each year.

I’m looking out my window, and this intern house that’s under construction is extremely modest, and it will be a great project because it’s modest and in a certain way traditional—and its opposite. It’s super-modern and super-traditional at the same time. It’s easy here in this landscape, because I know it so well, I know where all the sources of richness are—I can pull it out of the land and sky, the views. It’s a great place to learn to be an architect.

So we do these cheap houses, but I don’t want to say that too loud, because it’s hard to make your living doing that. Years ago, I thought I had figured out a way to make a living developing software for an internet-based design tool that would be able to produce something like the Usonian houses. It was going so interestingly well that I decided not to do it, because it was too interesting. It would have distorted my career. So we didn’t follow it up. It was a great exercise to go down that road. But you’ve only got one life, you’ve got to figure out how you want to live it.

I’m curious how you see these categories—the vernacular and the modern—whether they’re useful or a distraction for thinking about your work.

All of these dualities are a sophomoric intellectual trap to see the world in terms of opposites. We’re just showing the frailty of our binary brains. In a way, it’s not useful at all. But in a way, it’s also something to resolve, like in a Hegelian equation.

It’s fun to learn from tradition, it’s part of reading the landscape—you start maybe with a vernacular archetype, and you contextualize it to a specific place and a specific time. I love the idea—and maybe the work is going more like this—when you first look at it, you don’t even see it, it’ll be invisible. But as you get close, and by the time you get inside, it becomes evident that it’s extremely modern. Pushing against tradition like that—setting it up, then deconstructing or making something modern with it—that’s interesting to us right now.

We have a whole side of our practice that’s invisible architecture—you’re in a village, you add something, and no one notices it. Until you look really closely and see, oh, this is different. There’s an ethic that’s about cultivating the cultural landscape and not just standing out against it—adding to the cohesion in the world rather than the cult of the compelling object, as Peter Buchanan calls it. That’s not very hip or fashionable. We have these predilections, like making really, really dull architecture—that’s bad for business. And in a way, making buildings invisible is bad for getting noticed—or it’s a great way to do everything.

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects designed the Canadian Chancery and Official Residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2009. Photo by Steven Evans
MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects designed the Canadian Chancery and Official Residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2009. Photo by Steven Evans

There are also elements of the traditional and modern in your processes: for instance, taking in an intern in a master builder/apprentice tradition, or working with builders and their local expertise—whether it’s the shingler in Atlantic Canada or the bricklayers in Bangledesh.

It’s part of the whole sustainability discussion. When it is taken seriously, it’s usually taken technically rather than culturally. There’s a kind of sustainability that comes with using local materials and practices that’s a cultural sustainability. That’s a great source of content and goes to the heart of sustainability in the environmental sense.

I’m curious how you think about typology in your work.

There’s typology and then there’s archetype forms. In the École des Beaux Arts, they were very clear in teaching people to make good buildings using certain recognized types of approaches, and that produced great cities. At the very least, we have to do that. If you’ve got a model in mind, you can’t totally fuck up. The model is there to help you, like scaffolding.

I think the higher ambition is to get to that archetypal level, with projects where it’s not just the type, it’s one of the fundamental ones—the ones that are a deep, universal human power. So that’s what we’re trying for.

It’s an ambition. To some extent, we’re always failing. Remember Laurie Anderson? She had a song she did called Walking. She said, “Walking is a combination of falling and stopping yourself from falling.” You keep going, and keep adjusting. It’s like target practice. If you’re disciplined enough, and don’t take any wooden nickels along the way, you might end up somewhere. You might hit the archetypal thing.

Completed in association with RDH Architects, the ARC building (2003) formalizes a pedestrian spine and frames a new courtyard, helping to urbanize the University of Toronto’s suburban Scarborough campus. Photo by Dan Herljevic
Completed in association with RDH Architects, the ARC building (2003) formalizes a pedestrian spine and frames a new courtyard, helping to urbanize the University of Toronto’s suburban Scarborough campus. Photo by Dan Herljevic

I wanted to ask about the sources of inspiration in your work—we’ve talked a little about travel, and clearly philosophers and other kinds of artists are very much part of your way of seeing the world.

Yes, of course. I had to speak at this innovation conference a few months ago, and I stood up there and said, “I think innovation is overrated.” It’s certainly nothing you can set out to do. It’s more exciting to me to rediscover something others have understood, than to imagine I invented it. When you rediscover something that others have figured out, you get a sense that they must be good ideas, because they have currency beyond your discipline. You have friends, you’ve got allies—you’re not alone.

You have to be interested and curious in the world and in what other disciplines are doing. Yousuf Karsh used to make the point that the trick in his world was to retain a childlike curiosity into old age. It means being open to being turned on to things that other people are doing and making. I’ve always been interested in visual art, sure. Intellectually, you can be inspired by all these other fields. There’s the unity of knowledge, but there’s only one world. We’re all just picking away at the edges of it, together.

To bring us a bit closer to the present reality, perhaps you could speak a bit about the projects you’re working on currently that you’re most excited about.

The projects are very diverse in the office, which is a great thing. We’re making this house that I’m looking out at right now, this little house like two fishing shacks talking to one another. It’s really inexpensive, it’s rural, it’s small, it’s modest.

We’re making a Corten wall in the side of a mountain—a 160-foot-long Corten exterior wall in the side of a mountain for a guy to live behind with his family. He’s a helicopter mechanic who builds windmill farms. So you’ve got these giant windmills all over the landscape around it. How cool is that?

We’re also working on this art gallery in New Brunswick, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery extension. It’s a great honour to be doing a public institution on such a revered site, with such a great art collection, with a terrific client group—it’s too good to be true. But those projects have long, long, long roots. In a way, you start working toward those projects when you’re 20 years old. Hopefully, they happen before you croak.

Muir Craig Cottage (2013) comprises a group of minimalist buildings with gabled roofs. Photo by Will Green
Muir Craig Cottage (2013) comprises a group of minimalist buildings with gabled roofs. Photo by Will Green

In one of your books, you write that the quality by which you execute your first projects really determines the practice.

You are what you eat. I’m very skeptical when people say, “When I make a lot of money, I’m going to start being a good architect,” or “When I retire, I’m going to teach.” You hear these things. But life is not a rehearsal—you just go at it. I decided I was going to be an architect when I was 4, I had my own practice at 23. What are we waiting for? This is it.

I can’t imagine that any of this would have happened without my wife, Marilyn. She’s been so unconditionally supportive, and in an active way. The day we were married, her mother made her swear on a Bible that she would never stand in the way of my art. That’s really important. Brigitte Shim and I talk about work-life balance and family, and working out how it can all be synergistic. For both of us, that’s really important. It’s primary—you’ve got to be happy to make good work.

In the end, so much of this is about relationships.

All the way through—exactly. Starting at home, and ending with bailing labourers out of jail to come to the construction site. It’s a big social art, architecture.

What is your hope for the future of architecture?

Part of the reason I think that’s a difficult question to answer for an artist of any kind is that we don’t really do anything to change the world, we don’t really do anything for posterity. You just do it for the doing of it. And there’s no guarantee that anybody is going to even notice. But if you’re an artist, that doesn’t matter.

You want to leave the world better than you found it, which is how I justify doing silent buildings a lot of the time. The fabric that they make cultivates the world and makes it better. So cultivation is an ethic—you want to improve things, like a farmer wants to improve the land.

Glenn Murcutt was asked in an interview, “What is the relevance of all these primitive huts and beautiful sites, these little jewels that you do?” He said, “You know, if you do some small thing very well, it can change the world.” Especially in the globalized world that we’re in. Like Frances Kéré’s school in his village in Burkino Faso, it won the Aga Khan prize; it changes the world with that.

But it’s not that you set out to change the world—you set out to do something that’s right for that village.

Something useful. Make a contribution in some small way. It’s very pretentious to assume we know what’s best for everybody. No big manifesto. Just walking.