Ghost 6
Seeing Ghosts (Excerpt)
Thomas Fisher

Although designed by the participants, with the guidance of MacKay-Lyons, the construction of the two towers involved students and professionals, architects and builders, young and old. And some of the details changed as the towers went up, with everyone involved in their construction convening on site to solve a problem and agree on a modification. Such is the way in which building has occurred through most of human history, and how it still occurs in remote places to this day. It is also the way in which building will increasingly occur around the globe, even as we face pressures to mass-produce architecture to lower its cost and increase its availability. Remaining removed from this phenomenon or thinking we must protect our professional turf in the face of it will only make architects irrelevant. Rather, by helping build what we design and by inviting builders into the design process, as happened in the making of these two towers, the differences and complementary knowledge of designers and builders become more apparent and mutually valued.

Our knowledge also becomes more focused. We have far more ideas, images, and information coming at us than humans ever had before, which connects us to others even as it distances us from ourselves. In architecture, this has led some to argue that the field has more to do with the flow of information and the fluidity of form than it does with the actual making of something physical or even inhabitable. That may be a part of what architecture becomes in the future, but it has certainly distanced us from what architecture has always done - shelter people - and what architecture desperately needs to do in a world in which billions of people live in unhealthy conditions.

These two towers showed what an antidote to such distancing might be. As we sat on the scaffolding high in the air, holding on as the two towers swayed in the wind blowing off the ocean, while trying to drive spikes through the rough-cut wood - nothing fostered a greater sense of focus, of being fully in the moment, than that. Architecture may be about information and image, but it is also and will always be about the most fundamental human act of fastening materials together to give us shelter from the storm.

The two towers also showed how designing and constructing something can build community. The handing up or holding down of lumber, the looking after each other up on the scaffolding, the calling out for or giving of assistance, the odd conversations had high in the air while waiting for the next task to arrive - all created an incredible camaraderie among all who build. Up on the two towers, among people who mostly didn't know each other two weeks before, a real bond developed. Even in our age of distance and distraction, communities of people can still spontaneously arise.

(III) Brian MacKay-Lyons calls the two-week ghost projects a "crash-course in material culture," and so they are. Unlike so many of his peers, whose material culture consists of products selected from Sweets Catalog, MacKay-Lyons has drawn his materials and detailing largely from the simple sheds, houses, and barns of his native Nova Scotia, and in so doing, has created a compelling architecture quite different from much of what gets built in North America today. Over much of the continent, you see structures made of increasingly flimsy and ephemeral materials, with predictable and often monotonous interior spaces and extravagant and often torturous exterior ornamentation. Such architecture seeks to give owners an individual identity, which backfires when everyone tries to do the same, reflecting a paradox in North American culture: we stand united in our effort to stand apart from each other, conforming in our drive to be non-conformists.

MacKay-Lyons's work represents a quiet, but powerful critique of this phenomenon. His architecture tries to reconnect people to the culture and traditions of the place in which they live, via the craft traditions and vernacular architecture of their communities. It is easy for such an approach to become nostalgic, producing otherwise banal buildings that simply mimic the appearance of historic structures. The far more difficult course that MacKay-Lyons has pursued involves, not the rejection of modernism, but its modification by filtering it through a local culture and adapting it to local conditions. This has resulted in work that has almost the opposite characteristics of so much North American architecture: buildings with material substance, spatial dynamism, and formal restraint. The ghost projects echo that inversion of the dominant material culture in their use of substantial materials, construction methods particular to a place, and forms so spare and simple that they have a generic and almost universal appeal.

We tend to see modernism as the antithesis of traditional cultures, as a decided break from the past and old ways of being. And we typically associate modernism with individual expression and mass-production, the very combination that has come to define the architectural vernacular of our time. But the work of Brian MacKay-Lyons and the ghost projects he has supervised suggest otherwise. Both abstractly modern and culturally rooted, his architecture undermines the apparent opposition between the two, and highlights their often overlooked commonality: the desire to live lightly on the land, to see change as an inevitable part of life, and to view freedom arising from a reduction of one's material possessions. Of all the lessons learned on the ghost projects, those might be the most profound.

Thomas Fisher is the Dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota.