Halifax architect Brian MacKay-Lyons creates a cottage that is inspired by schooners, sheds and farmhouses
Brian MacKay-Lyons, a founder of the Halifax architectural firm MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple, loves Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn. He also reveres the unsung heroes of Maritime architecture: the men and women who built the schooners, sheds and gabled farmhouses of Nova Scotia. "I look at the vernacular buildings around me and also at the global masterworks," he says. "I'm not terribly interested in the things in between."
Last year, Thames and Hudson released a monograph charting the architect's decades-long career, which is defined by competing impulses: mysticism versus rationality. His most iconic projects are uncommonly surreal. The Bridge House in southwestern Nova Scotia is a slatted lantern that spans a valley between granite outcroppings. The Two Hulls residence comprises a pair of oblong cantilevers extruding from the coastline, like binoculars trained on the horizon.
Other works are more restrained. "The best environments are created without architects," Mr. MacKay-Lyons says. "I like to think about what a pragmatic person – a fisherman, for instance – would build when he can't afford to get anything wrong." A recent house, Mirror Point Cottage, near Annapolis Royal, in southwestern Nova Scotia, exemplifies his late-career style, which tends toward minimalism. "As I get more confident, I find myself making simpler and simpler buildings," he says.
The client, Jill Robinson – an interior designer who lives in London with her husband, who works in finance, and their two children – discovered MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple through a simple Google search. Instead of building a cottage in Britain where land costs are prohibitive, the couple opted for a summer retreat near the Bay of Fundy, not too far from where Ms. Robinson grew up and her parents still live.
Mr. MacKay-Lyons surveyed the lakefront property and drew up a proposal: a gabled 5-by-25-metre volume resting on pillars and a concrete base. "A lot of our buildings float, because we think of them as lightweight things that are movable, like ships," Mr. MacKay-Lyons says.
When she first saw the proposal, Ms. Robinson demurred. She worried that, because the living space is relegated to the upstairs – indeed, the house doesn't have much of a downstairs to speak of – the interiors would be cut off from the beach. "With a cottage, you want that running-in-and-out dynamic," she says.
But the architect devised a solution: a full-service cooking-and-dining area in the outdoor space beneath the structure. This second "summer kitchen" is a half-metre below grade, and the floors are made entirely of hemlock, a local wood species that is cheap, tough and rot resistant. (The architect calls it "the poor-man's spruce.") The house itself is clad in cedar shingles, which quickly turned grey in the maritime climate. "There's enough salt in the air to pickle the wood," Mr. MacKay-Lyons says. "You don't need any protective treatment."
To walk indoors is to experience a kind of journey – a movement from darkness to light. One enters the building through its structural centre: a concrete-and-steel edifice that houses the guest bedrooms at the bottom and the children's room above. Atop the stairs, this shadowy core gives way to the sun-drenched great room, with its wraparound south- and west-facing windows. (There isn't much else to the house, except the master bedroom on the east end.) The space feels lofty – more of-the-sky than of-the-earth. Its horizontal window bands draw the eyes outward toward the lake and horizon. "I learned that technique from Frank Lloyd Wright," Mr. MacKay-Lyons says.
Unlike Wright, however, Mr. MacKay-Lyons embraces thrift-store pragmatism. At Mirror Point Cottage, the roof is supported by Gang-Nail Trusses, a prefabricated product bought off-the-rack: the trussing for the entire home cost a measly $2,500. And while the north side of the great room has an opulent cedar cabinet – with a built-in fireplace, dishwasher and sink – the ceiling is made of tongue-and-groove decking concealed beneath a white lacquer. "The trick is to hide the cheap stuff by painting over it," Mr. MacKay Lyons says, "like in a SoHo loft."
At $850,000, the build was still pricey, but economic workarounds prevented the costs from ballooning even higher – and enabled the clients to put money where it mattered most. They splurged on Gaggenau appliances, Porcelanosa bathroom tiles and a suite of chainsaw sculptures – a moose, a fox and a bear with a cub – by local folk artist Bradford Naugler. The biggest expense was the two pairs of sliding windows installed in the great room. Each opens to a three-metre-wide expanse of air, exposing the interiors to the elements. "People wonder, 'Where's the porch?'" Ms. Robinson says. "But when they get upstairs, they see that the whole house is a porch."
Mirror Point Cottage may be less radical than other MacKay-Lyons projects, but that takes nothing away from its beauty. It is in the architect's subtler work that one sees the fullest expression of his vision: high design in the service of regional culture. Look past the showy elements – the sometimes-decadent finishes, the blurring of indoor and outdoor space – and what are you left with? A fishing shack on sticks.
In a career that has seen its share of inventiveness, Mirror Point Cottage is a return to first principles. "I have to keep checking myself," Mr. MacKay-Lyons says. "I can never lose touch with my primary sources: the simple buildings that are the inspiration for everything I do."