In a Canadian province that is more famous for exporting its talent than for keeping it close to the nest, Brian MacKay-Lyons chose to come home to make his way. Now, two decades into the journey, the native Nova Scotian continues to produce houses made of stick-built frames, simple forms, and a few choice materials. Part mystic, part intellectual, part pragmatist, part master builder, MacKay-Lyons digs deep to extract cues from the culture and landscape of his homeland, creating modern works that are both universal--and specific. "You learn general principles from studying particular things," he asserts. "So I'm interested in not being provincial. But I think we all gain strength from where we operate."
Born and raised in the village of Acadia in southwestern Nova Scotia, MacKay-Lyons still owns a farm on the rugged coastline where his French ancestors settled 400 years ago. He describes his upbringing as "very homegrown," but is quick to point out that his parents took him and his brother on frequent trips abroad. The sights of Amsterdam, London, and Rome were the larger-than-life travel destinations for this boy from the Maritime Provinces whose everyday world was filled with lobster boats and hardworking shipwrights. "We traveled extensively," he recalls. "So I always had these two communities, these two sources."
Even from the time he was a child, the self-made proponent of an "anti-style" says he had a fascination with buildings and the way they are made. By the time he was four, he was certain he would be an architect.
MacKay-Lyons started his architectural education in Halifax, but took time off to study abroad and spent half a year traveling in China and Japan. He absorbed all he could visiting the courtyard houses of Beijing and studying the landscape tradition in Kyoto. He returned to Canada and finished his B.Arch. within the year. While at the Technical University of Nova Scotia, he befriended professor Larry Richards, and together they formed a small Halifax practice "the day I graduated in 1978."
MacKay-Lyons admits he was young and "really naive," but he was also the medal winner--the star pupil--in his class. Still wet behind the ears, he went to UCLA, where he studied with Charles Moore, whom he immediately approached in search of a job. Moore found a place for MacKay-Lyons in his Urban Innovations Group--the collaborative firm operated with other faculty members at UCLA--and later at Moore Ruble Yudell.
MacKay-Lyons capped off his run in California with a fellowship in 1982 at the International Laboratory for Architecture and Urban Design in Siena, Italy. There he worked under the watchful eye of Giancarlo de Carlo. "Basically what I was trying to do with those three stints--in California, Tuscany, and Kyoto--was more or less a designed education," he says. "I wanted to go to Italy to understand the Renaissance, to go to Japan to understand the landscape tradition, and to go to California to see the most interesting current work, which is where it was happening in 1980."
Having fulfilled those goals, MacKay-Lyons returned to Nova Scotia in 1983 to set up his own practice in Halifax and teach at Dalhousie University. The intervening years, he says, have followed a deliberate plan. At the beginning, he dissected the local context by doing measured drawings and sketching vernacular buildings, and then he designed buildings that abstracted those vernacular forms. He gradually pursued a unique type of regionalist architecture, one that is neither literal nor sentimental. Instead, he searches for the qualities that connect opposing views of the world: the highbrow and the lowbrow.
"It is about looking beyond the high-architecture tradition to the vernacular as a way of dodging the issue of style," explains MacKay-Lyons, who made his reputation with a series of award-winning residential designs, including five that won the Governor General's Medal, Canada's highest honor. "I've always had a way of looking at vernacular buildings and then going to the high mountain, such as the Kimball, when I thought I was ready to get something from it. My work is about both things, not either/or. So I guess what I found by going to the extremes--the highbrow and the lowbrow--is the idea that they share a certain archetypal quality. I'm more interested in finding the universal principles."