Of all the architects doing award-winning work, Brian MacKay-Lyons’ may be among the most frugal. Long before the recession forced that shift, he strove for a minimalist approach that was not about luxury living. Plain modern, it’s been dubbed, downscaling highbrow modernism into a beautifully rendered philosophical principle.
His deeply held beliefs are more relevant than ever now, when environmental and economic sustainability are practically givens. One is his commitment to the “good generic”—creating buildings that are good urban or rural citizens in the way they relate to the landscape, climate, and culture. Another is his interest in developing a universal design grammar. Because we’re all wired the same way, there’s an archetypal quality of buildings that’s transferable from place to place, he believes. What changes is their materials (what’s available locally) and how they’re made (the skill set at-hand). In short, it’s the design grammar, not the construction, that’s modular and travels light.
“We think the deep structure is transportable and the clothing changes,” says MacKay-Lyons, FRAIA, Hon. FAIA. “The idea that you invent a different house every five minutes is a creative myth. That’s not how people get good.”
He should know. The firm, which includes partner Talbot Sweetapple, MRAIC, has won five Governor General’s Medals and the American Institute of Architects’ Honor Award. Recently, with a project as far-flung as Bangladesh, it’s begun taking its regionalist architecture worldwide.
What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?
Residential scale is almost instant gratification in architectural time, the cast of clients keeps changing, and you’re never far from that material cultural tradition.
What is the most frustrating aspect?
The hard work of trying to maximize the dream but minimize the price tag.
What is your mission statement or firm goal?
To make buildings that are mostly silent but say more—more meaning, less stuff.
What is the most indispensable tool in your office?
The free-hand sketch. To seize the moment with people, you need to be able to draw fluidly in free-hand, right there, live. It’s the thing that allows us to be nimble and strategic.
What software does your firm use?
Whatever we can get our hands on. Architecture isn’t about the tools, but about what you make with the tools.
Who is your ideal client?
We look for an art patron in the broadest sense, open-minded and wanting to do something amazing. Then intellectual engagement. That frees you up so you don’t get stuck on an image or tastes, including ours.
What is your favorite building?
The Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn, the Great Mosque of Córdoba, and the Marie Short House by Glenn Murcutt.
If you didn’t have the time to design your own house, who would you hire?