Sophisticated in conception and pure in execution, MacKay-Lyons' houses often rise starkly from the ground in monolithic expanses of sheet metal, wood, concrete, or glass. "How remarkable--in an age when buildings that are widely published are made on computers and feature swoopy curves and exotic materials--that this architect can create with such assurance, with means that are so simple," says Frank Harmon, FAIA.
No question--Brian MacKay-Lyons' buildings strive for abstraction, celebrating a kind of plainness or "zero-ness," to use his term. His devotion to modernism prompted scholar Malcolm Quantrill to label the work "Plain Modern," the title of an upcoming monograph on MacKay-Lyons by Quantrill, a professor at Texas A&M University. The work is plain in a number of ways, says MacKay-Lyons. One that he discusses often is his opinion that culture is democratic, a view that conflicts with the more elitist theory of historians such as Nikolaus Pevsner. Says MacKay-Lyons: "Pevsner's view that there is the basilica and the bicycle shed, and that the two have nothing to do with each other, is a view that I reject. This quality that I'm looking for is something that connects the sublime simplicity of vernacular architecture with the work of the masters--the same quality that you find in a Tuscan barn or a Baroque cathedral. This is the quality I am calling plainness."
In MacKay-Lyons' mind, his "plain" approach emulates the no-nonsense humanism of Charles Moore. "He used to say that if you can't say it in plain English, it must not be that important. I believe that. I share a kind of irreverence for class-based or elitist views of what architects do, which I think is the dominant view of what we do--we serve the elite. But I believe I am making architecture that is accessible and legible to everyday people."
He considers Glenn Murcutt another good friend and mentor. "I see people like that as a mariner would see the stars as reference points, as pure models. Murcutt has that incredible discipline in his work to push away from all of the vanities of practice and money and stick to his knitting. I don't have a one-man office like him, but I find the lesson inspirational. I grew up respecting my elders, and I like talking to them."
Often labeled a regionalist architect, MacKay-Lyons maintains that his buildings have less to do with the architectural traditions of Nova Scotia than they do with its geography and its material culture. He insists that he practices an "anti-style" of architecture using forms that belong to the history of architecture and not to the region where he practices.
Having divorced his buildings from the burden of style, MacKay-Lyons intends them to be instruments for viewing the landscape. The most literal of these is a house for a weatherman who has many astronomical instruments. "I see the houses as not consuming the landscape, but really to teach about the landscape by the way you are made to move through or be in the buildings. The buildings are very much like helmets. I see them as being very anthropomorphic. They are a lot about prospect, framing the world in a way that is didactic, that explains it, and makes it easier to understand."
The orientation of MacKay-Lyons' houses in the landscape also relates to cultural patterns already established in the prototypical houses, barns, and boat sheds of the province. Having established the footprint of the house according to the landscape, he then treats the skin of the building as an independent piece of clothing that is free to respond to nature and weather. Prevailing winter winds come from the west, and rain approaches from the east. That's why in so many cases his buildings have a "rumpy north side, and glassy south side," as he puts it. "There's a freedom in the idea of disengaging the making of the form and the idea of skinning it. I liken it to the idea of melody and harmony. They are independent but they complement each other."
His selection of materials is governed by the facts of life in Nova Scotia, where a limited number of materials are both available and affordable. MacKay-Lyons readily points out that he lives in a "wooden culture," a place that has relied on a shipbuilding economy for centuries. Because of that, skilled carpenters are widely available. "It makes the buildings frugal, which is part of the culture here, too," he says. "I also like the idea of using 2x4s and nails, rather than hand-polished cherry rails. I like the kind of economy of the light timber-framed tradition. And I learned a lot about this from the boatbuilding tradition here of the lobster boats." To illustrate the point, MacKay-Lyons describes how the construction of these boats has evolved so that the structural ribs have become smaller and closer together. "The boat can crash into the rocks and still float, because of the plasticity of the skin," he says. Like the lobster boats, MacKay-Lyons' houses have a consistently lightweight structure and thin skin.
But, he says, the appearance of his houses is a fitting expression of the tough attitudes that are common in the Maritime Provinces. "Like my dad used to say, 'See that red Ferrari there? That man doesn't own it, the bank does.' It's a kind of modesty. That attitude is very pervasive here in the Acadian culture--there's a kind of common cultural attitude that produces something quite good, but negative too. There's a meanness and a stinginess. But it produces an interesting aesthetic."