Book Review: The Work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects—Economy as Ethic

Economy as ethic. For the Halifax-based firm MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple, this book illustrates more than an architectural approach. And for Brian McKay-Lyons in particular, 
it describes the underlying values that inform his teaching, his projects, and the way he lives. For him, architecture is about rigorous editing as a means of expressing the essence 
of a situation, the essential beauty. And it’s something to which we should all aspire.

I have been lucky to spend time with MacKay-Lyons in the remote, humbling landscape surrounding Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he lives and works. I have participated in his Ghost conferences and spent weekends 
in his Shobac Cabins, and I have travelled with him through other far-flung landscapes such as Mali’s Dogon region. For those who have never experienced Nova Scotia or the firm’s architecture, The Work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects: Economy as Ethic, the latest survey of his work with partner Talbot Sweetapple, provides a window into their world. For those like me, who have already peered into this world and experienced the work, this book offers a new perspective into their particular way of thinking.

The Work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects: Economy as Ethic
The Work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects: Economy as Ethic

The firm’s way of approaching architecture combines rationality and poetry—it is straightforward and coherent but speaks to larger issues of community and place. The simplicity of the book’s subtitle, “economy as ethic,” belies the depth of consideration that informs the architecture. Critical essays by Juhani Pallasmaa and Kenneth Frampton help to plumb these depths, but perhaps the most illuminating texts are in the book’s postscript, where MacKay-Lyons’ longtime friend and local storyteller Barnell Duffenais offers a poetic reading of the work. 
In many ways, the poetic is the most difficult 
aspect of the firm’s practice to capture, and yet 
I think it is the most important. Not just because MacKay-Lyons himself gravitates towards storytelling—“In Nova Scotia,” he once wrote, “simple primary forms are perched on the land like brightly coloured dice, or their skins join to make a good urban fabric”—but because his work is in dialogue with larger issues that transcend architecture and speak to our shared humanity.

There is always a dialogue in the work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple—between history and community, building and place, interior and exterior. These conversations are evident in Economy as Ethic in the way that projects are represented. The book is divided into two main sections: Private Houses and Public Places. Each project is presented through finished photography but also through diagrams, process sketches, tectonic details, plans and context imagery. These images help us discover how their work is more explorative and open-ended than the restrained finished forms might suggest. Although a survey, the book is not arranged chronologically. Instead, it is organized to open up connections between and across individual projects. It seems that MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple is constantly searching for linkages: moments of conversation and connection.

As MacKay-Lyons himself writes in the book, “The ultimate purpose of architecture is community.” The selection of projects presented 
in Economy as Ethic show how, for them, architecture is a social art that aims for the integration of people, place and culture. Their work 
is as much about history and people as it is about the architectural forms they craft. Sometimes, the forms come directly from this shared history, as in the Shobac community where MacKay-Lyons has restored several historic structures in an experiential study of Nova Scotia’s vernacular building traditions. The “Origins” section of Economy as Ethic is particularly revealing—here, MacKay-Lyons offers an insight into the intersection of this community’s needs and his own inspirations.

MacKay-Lyons writes that in Shobac and his work at large, he strives for the moment where “the building and its parti become one and the same.” Economy as Ethic names a mode of practice wherein an economy of means allows projects to convey a clear, unified position. The buildings are rational and they are edited. And yet, through this very simplicity of form, his buildings reveal and unfold their contexts. They frame their sites, they focus attention, and they speak to their surroundings without competing with them. In drawing on vernacular architectural traditions, the projects establish a place that extends beyond the building itself.

I have long known Brian MacKay-Lyons 
to be interested in these spaces of “in-between.” In describing the barnyard at his Shobac community, he writes, “This place underlines the value of places between buildings—what artists call ‘white space’ or ‘negative space,’ or what we now refer to as ‘microclimate.’” This way 
of thinking—of understanding that the open spaces are as important as built ones, and that providing space does not mean prescribing it—typifies MacKay-Lyons’ process. Interestingly, 
it means that what is most compelling about his work is what isn’t built.

Take his Ghost Labs, for example. This 
series of thirteen laboratories were held at his Shobac community, and I was honoured to participate in the last Ghost Seminar in 2013. “Laboratory” is a fitting name for these gatherings, as they are clearly experimental exercises for everyone: for MacKay-Lyons, his students, and invited participants. The labs are an opportunity to have a dialogue about how we build architecture and community. They are about opening up a space between the theory and practice of architecture where we can have a conversation about what architecture means to us as people. As the book makes clear, 
it is this dialogue between architecture and community where the work of McKay-Lyons Sweetapple comes to life.

Tom Kundig, FAIA, is co-founder and a principal at Olson Kundig in Seattle.
The Work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects: Economy as Ethic, by Robert McCarter. Thames & Hudson, 2017.