In late autumn 1997, a business trip for Detail magazine brought me, not just to Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, but to Halifax, Nova Scotia as well. The aim of the journey was to meet Canadian architects, and to look for possible authors within the Faculties of Architecture of Canadian universities.
I arrived in Halifax on the day before Halloween; the weather was beautiful - sunshine at the end of an Indian summer. My hosts, Rob Meyer and Bruno Weber, of Brian MacKay-Lyons Urban Design Ltd., took their roles very seriously. They showed me different materials, models on the office terrace, as well as reference materials. They took me to different sites the firm planned to build on. On a huge rock, weathered by wind and rain, a wood house would soon lean. The owners would have an amazing view of the waves crashing upon the shore.
I was enthralled by my first visit to the Faculty of Architecture at Dalhousie University. The new extension added to the inspiring and creative work atmosphere. The unpretentious studio character of the extension, created by Brian MacKay-Lyons, had a great influence on it. With its high, open space, it offered the possibility and flexibility to build - on and up - to whatever the future would bring.
The following day, I set out on an expedition with Bruno and Rob, following the muth of the culture landscape of Nova Scotia. Here the terrirotial struggle for the Americas by Europe exists in miniature, from the French settlements along the South Shore, to the German enclave around Lunenburg, to the British military bases in and around Halifax.
Agriculture and fishing was the livelihood of the settlers. They were often persecuted on the basis of religion and financial distress. The building culture is based on the natural resources, primarily wood. It brought the different European cultures together, building boats and building houses with the same craftsmanship. With this blending of cultures came constructive relationships and formal associations.
Now that you know about the vernacular building culture, you can make an educated guess about the look of architecture today. How do the buildings of Brian MacKay-Lyons' fit so well into the existing landscape. He had looked at the vocabulary of current structures, lighthouses, barns, farmhouses, wharfs, and even boats, to study them carefully. He translated these studies into the design of his houses, and their position within the landscape. The resulting connection between the landscape and the vernacular defines contemporary architecture.
As a teacher, Brian MacKay-Lyons explains his approach to his students right from the beginning. He tries to make them sensitive to the roots of culture in Nova Scotia, as well as its uniqueness. He inspires their craftsmanship and design potential by building models. In a scenic and awe inspiring location on the coast of Nova Scotia, he initiated an experiment, the Ghost Lab. In different stages, of which the third had just been realized, the students work together as amateur archaeologists to expose the remains of a 350 year old residential area. Over the foundation of the oldest building, they built a stick frame with a translucent foil. Inside, a bonfire was lit. In the darkness, the light of the "ghost," shone like a magic lantern through the fog. The following year, a new group of students built a wooden deck.
In the third installment, the students wanted to know how to join small wood profiles in the local building tradition. 500 pieces of 2x4 wood (and about 150 4" nails) were used to create a simple structure using the principle of tie beams. When finished, oil lamps were laid out along the construction, all 120 feet of it. The building appeared like a huge stranded bone structure.
At this Ghost (1997), the theme of my excursion was to show the three-dimensional conduction of forces acting upon a building. On the deck, a structure of strips and frame elements had been built up. Panels took the wind force and distributed it onto the load bearing units. The composure of Ghost 3 was seen in the different types of cladding, closed, transparent and open. Projections accompanied the final event, attended by friends and neighbours. The strong form allowed the selective choice of design possibilities. The floating deck reminded one of what Glenn Murcutt always emphasized about the Australian aborigines "touching the earth lightly". The possibility of views and perspectives allowed the dialog of the building with location and the landscape. The recessed fitting area and the stairs at the end of the "wind tunnel" trained the experience with the simplest human needs and proportions. Until then, they were very conscientious about reusing materials. Further steps of these "architecture parlante" were planned.
The story of the ghost village required a sequel. Although started as a playful experiment, Ghost became a continuing educational experience, with successive expansive steps (Detail 1/1998), that confirmed its need. The weekend home of Brian MacKay-Lyons overlooks the Ghost site, amazed by the ghost lantern reminiscent of a lighthouse. With its double function, it also serves as an adventuresome world for his children. The building fits - even when transformed - well into the rural surroundings.
And the seafood chowder, which helped to exorcise the ghosts, will always be on my mind.