New clients come to MacKay-Lyons primarily through referrals from other architects and sometimes through former students or friends. "A lot of them are people from away who move to Nova Scotia. They tend to be less conservative than the people here who have the means to hire an architect. And there's a funny thing about this kind of regionalism. You have to be from outside the region to recognize it for what it is," he says.
MacKay-Lyons follows a consistent set of steps with each of his clients. He visits the building site with them and then they go to the nearest coffee shop. "We stay about two hours and then leave with a concept for the house. It's like a participatory design approach, which is what I learned from Charles Moore. By the time I step back from the table, I've got a pre-approved concept."
Two years later, the completed house is remarkably true to the original diagram, he says. "It's a schema or a parti--and what I like about it is it is pre-pictorial, pre-style. The nice thing about an intellectual approach is the engagement with the client that you accomplish. If you can take them away from the style discussion and get them intellectually engaged, you can take them outside of their aesthetic prejudices. You get them to try things. And they suspend their taste."
To maintain his connections to the rest of the world, MacKay-Lyons teaches and lectures widely. Each summer since 1994, he has imported about 20 students, faculty, and practitioners for a two-week design/build workshop that he calls the Ghost Lab. Administered by the Dalhousie University School of Architecture, the lab started as an alternative part of his teaching duties. Conceived partly as a response to MacKay-Lyons' cynicism about the irrelevance of so much of architectural education, the Ghost Labs "reinforce landscape, making, and community as the three primary content sources in our discipline."
Each year, the site of the Ghost project is the same--a centuries-old stone ruin on MacKay-Lyons' farm. "It's based on the idea of the ghost ship, the idea of the midsummer night apparition of the burning ship on the horizon." The first year of the workshop, the group used a rendering of the Port-Royal settlement by explorer Samuel de Champlain and built a replica of one of the houses out of logs, steel cable, and tarp. When it was done, they lit a fire inside. "We were about to hang up our tools and go home, when about 200 people showed up," says MacKay-Lyons. "They had been watching. It turned into an all-night party."
Successive Ghost Lab projects have included a long platform in the landscape, which encouraged students to understand regional settlement patterns, and a wind tube, created to teach participants about wind shear. Now the final night has become a community tradition, a large annual "cultural happening" accompanied by musicians.
But, while new traditions are being established, change is occurring in the practice as well. Earlier this year, MacKay-Lyons moved his 10-person staff out of the converted gas station they've worked in for more than a decade and into a new 5,000-square-foot building. Its centerpiece is the studio space--80 feet long, 20 feet wide, and two stories tall, with a 40-foot-long drawing table in the center. "It's a temple of work," he quips.
The new office is indicative of other changes afoot in the practice, which will be renamed MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects in September, when longtime associate Talbot Sweetapple joins MacKay-Lyons as a partner. "It's a practice in transition--a transition from small-scale to larger-scaled projects, from domestic buildings to public buildings, and from very local buildings in the village to buildings that are international," says MacKay-Lyons. New projects include a library at the University of Toronto, a new Canadian Embassy in Bangladesh, and two buildings at the University of Vermont.
Although some aspects of the future remain uncertain, Brian MacKay-Lyons sticks to his guns, saying that it is all happening according to plan. Bit by bit, in his search for "zero-ness," he keeps developing his craft in a studied, direct, and intentional way. "The world is a messy place," he says. "Complexity does not have to be conjured. So the best we can do in a messed up and cluttered world is to make calming things that don't try to participate in the clutter."
Vernon Mays is the editor of Inform, the architecture and design magazine of the Virginia Society AIA.