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An East Coast modernism steeped in history

'The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.'

-- Herbert Marcuse,

One-Dimensional Man, 1964

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The practice of the Halifax architect Brian MacKay-Lyons is about resistance: rebuffing the weather and resisting the vanity of architecture. In Nova Scotia, where the elements are primal and unpredictable, an exposed edge of a cedar shingle can be flicked off by the wind. So the claddings of houses by MacKay-Lyons are pulled down hard to the ground. But more than that, his primary act of resistance is against the vagaries of architectural style. MacKay-Lyons invests his land-architecture with the simple, honest truths of barns and sheds, producing a version of modernism that looks back through time in order to endure.

Architects design buildings. MacKay-Lyons knows how to do that -- as in his design of the Canadian embassy in Bangladesh or the new Academic Resource Centre at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus. But more significant is what MacKay-Lyons creates along the fringes of the Atlantic Ocean, out there, well beyond the globalized metropolis and dehumanized consumerism: He's designing a cultural manifesto. And making it, too.

Nowhere is this more obvious than at his farm in Upper Kingsburg on the South Shore, where the architect and his wife, Marilyn, own 40 acres of surprising landscape. Surprising because of the large number of elements, both natural and built, belonging to the property. Next to the rough road, overlooking a beach on the Atlantic Ocean, there is a tight assembly of barns, sheds and the MacKay-Lyons renovated Cape Cod-style farmhouse.

A walk through the forest, past the fishing pond and beyond one of the glacial drumlins leads to the Messenger House, completed last summer, which points the snout of its wedge shape toward Hirtles Beach. Below it, near the La Have River estuary, are the vestiges of an Acadian village established some 400 years ago. During the expulsion, the stone foundations resisted the fires that burned the wooden houses to the ground. German settlers built directly on top of the ruins to create a small community of farmers and fisherman. A photo taken in 1929 indicates that there were a total of 30 buildings on the backside of MacKay-Lyons's farm. This is where the crux of MacKay-Lyons's cultural project belongs -- where his activism as an architect gets stirred up.

"I guess I find much of what is in architecture journals feels arbitrary to me," says MacKay-Lyons. "It doesn't acknowledge the richness of the world that's always there. I get disturbed by that. I feel disoriented if I can't root a project in its place, and draw on that ready-made constant -- the power of landscape."

Since 1994, MacKay-Lyons has staged a summer workshop, known simply as "Ghost." Young professionals and architecture students from Dalhousie University and the United States -- strangely, Canadians outside Nova Scotia typically do not participate -- gather for two weeks to design and construct temporary structures that float like apparitions over the old stone foundations. On Day 1, the participants gather at the Kingsburg site and are introduced to MacKay-Lyons's design concept for the site. Days 2 and 3 are spent touring the beguiling vernacular of the south shore -- barns and sheds with their minimal, taut façades with small windows arranged in quirky asymmetries according to where the studs fall. The group meets in a barn on MacKay-Lyons's property to work out the design. By week's end, immersed in the rough, intelligently crafted architecture from the past, the team finalizes design and starts to build. This summer's workshop produced a pair of light-frame wooden temples. One opens like a hand to the sky. The other closes like a fist hitting the ground.

The designs by MacKay-Lyons are spare and economic, born out of a place familiar with the restricted spaces of boats and tight budgets. The ribbon windows he uses for his houses are regular stock aluminum, not the custom wooden variety often specified in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. The Messenger House is framed with two-by-six wooden studs with a corrugated Galvalume roof. It sits like a monumental weather instrument, sloughing the rain and the snow from its mono-pitched roof without any pretence about its own immortality -- like an ordinary barn. Out west, there's a tradition of modernism that digs buildings into the land. Perched like a lighthouse is a better way to describe how MacKay-Lyons sites his houses.

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As a young man, MacKay-Lyons lived in Kyoto and travelled to Beijing to study the ancient courtyard houses. Those ideas of small, micro communities were reinforced by the tight arrangement of Nova Scotia vernacular -- the intimacy between house and shed. He prefers to separate a house into two distinct buildings to allow them, like people, to talk to each other across a garden or courtyard. The space between becomes as important as the architecture itself.

In his latest design for a Dutch couple recently emigrated to Nova Scotia, the wedge-shaped volume of the Hill House is a tight configuration that feels like the inside of a ship's cabin. The house sits aloft near Kingsburg. It faces, across a landscaped courtyard, another wedge-shaped volume used for storage and guest quarters.

There is no way to lie when you're dealing with two-by-10s, two-by-fours and 200 pounds of nails. For Ghost, the pair of hands is a testament to MacKay-Lyons's dedication to the plasticity of light timber frames that sit over the land or water in Nova Scotia. You can see how the old codgers move over time -- my favourite being a cedar-shingle fishing shack at Peggy's Cove that is set in a permanent nosedive into the Atlantic Ocean -- and the strength of their structure.

Wanting to teach wood construction, MacKay-Lyons instructed the students to build the tallest Ghost structure as a balloon frame, while the stubbier form uses a platform construction.

Like wooden lobster boats used on the East Coast, the structure of the Ghost structures also becomes the skin of the building. It's a house, a palace or a cathedral reduced to their fundamentals. Imagine beauty without heavy makeup. No stucco façade or neo-classical columns or eaves. But two volumes made out of sticks banged together.

By day, light rolls in through the gaps. At night, electric light from within the ghosts spills out onto the beach. The openings of the buildings appear to be more like rips in the skin than windows.

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MacKay-Lyons takes his students to Snyder's Shipbuilders, a vast timber structure set on the La Have River where a big steam chest for bending wood sits unceremoniously by the road.

What fascinates the architect is the way that parts of the corrugated steel cladding are peeled away to expose the wooden trusses. A window is spontaneously created. Fresh light travels in.

MacKay-Lyons continues to find the energy, the metaphors and the will to further his cultural project. He's planning to open a studio of design at his Kingsburg farm within the next few years. Eventually, he'd like to model something along the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen East in which students, profs and a design practice could come together in a group of meaningful buildings along the shores of the La Have estuary.

For now, life is good. Five hundred people walked up and over the hill at Upper Kingsburg to attend the Ghost party this summer. Lennie Gallant played for the crowd, as did the Bluenose Fiddlers. A monograph by historian Malcolm Quantrill on the work of MacKay-Lyons is being published by Princeton Architectural Press, to be released early next year. The land-architecture for private clients and Ghost continues to go up, says MacKay-Lyons, because it comes from within -- it is, after all, a pure act of passion.

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