The first full day of Ghost 13—held this June on a farm an hour and a half south of Halifax, Nova Scotia—began with a cold, driving rain, deepening mud, and unexpected electrical failure. Overall, an inauspicious beginning to a symposium that, based on its registration fee of $2,500, appeared at first blush to be an elitist event open only to those with piles of extra cash lying around. But by the time the shuttle buses bearing attendees from their nearby lodgings arrived, generators had been procured, coffee had been perked, and at 9:30 a.m.—only an hour late—the first in a star-studded list of presenting architects and critics was ready to take the podium.
“I know it is a strange time to do a conference like this,” says Brian MacKay-Lyons, the Halifax-based architect who organized the conference with his partner Talbot Sweetapple. “But these tough economic times are exactly when we need our peer communities. We all need to remain optimistic and ambitious, to keep the lamp lit, and to remind one another of why we are doing it.”
The 150 attendees agreed with MacKay-Lyons’s thinking: Overwhelmingly midcareer architects, the group included solo practitioners, principals of small firms, and midlevel associates from middle-sized firms. They were worn out from the past three years of struggling to get projects, keeping firms afloat, and getting work built. Some felt isolated in their practices or cities and sought the very inspiration and community that MacKay-Lyons hoped to offer.
And he’s had experience with creating it: Every summer since 1999, MacKay-Lyons has organized and hosted a two-week design/build workshop, open to about 20 architecture students from anywhere in the world, on this remote piece of land called Shobac Farm. The workshop specifically addressed architecture based in the physical and cultural history of the site, the experiences of the landscape, and the materials and details of construction. Named Ghost for the building that MacKay-Lyons imagined once occupied an ancient stone foundation on the site, the workshop built temporary buildings, sheds, observation platforms, and a boathouse.
The 2010 Ghost 12 was the last of the workshops, and Ghost 13 was seen as a capstone for the Ghost effort, bringing the scale of the event from small and student-driven, to a broader, more practitioner-focused discussion. “I would love for us to be able to develop a strong position—even to be a movement or a school,” MacKay-Lyons says. “Like Team 10, but the postfeminist version—inclusive, ever-expanding, dedicated to making architecture that reinforces … [the idea of] place in the face of globalization.”
Many of the conference presenters—mostly architects whose work struggles with issues of climate, place, landscape, and technique—had taught at a Ghost workshop, while others had visited as guest critics. In this sense, and in their own work and shared concerns, most of the presenters make up a kind of family tree, with the keynote speakers—Kenneth Frampton, Juhani Pallasmaa, Hon. FAIA, and Glenn Murcutt, Hon. FAIA—serving as what MacKay-Lyons calls “tribal elders.” The opening keynote set both the framework for this year’s gathering and the bar for the level of discourse: Frampton revisited his 1983 seminal essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” expanding it to embrace the subtleties, contingencies, and global perspectives of the past 30 years.
The program for the three days was packed. Daytime presentations, held in a historic hexagonal barn, began at 8:30 each morning, and ran back-to-back, culminating in an afternoon discussion led by critics and historians. Each day’s sessions focused on a different theme: place, craft, and community. Most of the presenting architects—including people such as Wendell Burnette, AIA, Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, and Patricia Patkau—might be considered regional modernists. Of course, the buildings shown were inspiring, and almost all were extremely expensive private residences in unbuilt settings. The third day’s theme, Community, added complexity to the conversation—and a challenge to the overall sense of privilege in the work—with presentations about design/build programs with architecture students set in marginalized communities.
MacKay-Lyons admits that the list of invited speakers—which is missing some excellent women, talented younger-generation architects, and overseas practitioners—was not inclusive, but rather reflects his own interests and connections. He had relied on his friendships to convince people to come help with past Ghost workshops, and to come for this week to a remote corner of North America. “There are many close friendships among people in this group, some of us invite others to collaborate on projects, we help each other with practice advice, we are often in friendly competition with one another for projects, we call each other up for information on details, materials, finishes,” he says.
But this very atmosphere of generosity and community is why Ghost 13 resulted in no call to arms issued and no Team 10–like movement launched. Instead of gathering an exclusive group to huddle in a room and craft a single stance, MacKay-Lyons invited a diverse group of architects with overlapping concerns and an unabashed appreciation of each others’ work. He then opened the conference to anyone who was interested in becoming part of this loose network. Indeed, rather than defining an exclusive territory, the presentations embellished, updated, and pushed the boundaries of the strain of Modernism that has been around since Alvar Aalto and some of his contemporaries pushed back against the orthodoxy of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne. It’s the strain that Frampton dubbed “critical regionalism,” and that Colin St. John Wilson called “the other tradition of modernism”: In short, contemporary work that is embedded in the specifics of its place, its program, and its tactile and technical context, and achieves these aims without being sentimental.
Even in the absence of a unified rallying cry, however, attendees were not disappointed. On their few breaks, the Ghost 13 participants scattered across the farm to explore the various constructions. Architects eating lunch at a handmade picnic table—some sent by their firms, others paying their own way—all concur that it was worth the cost. What they forged here was community: They were now “Ghosters,” alums of this place, part of the network built by MacKay-Lyons and his associates, and of its ongoing conversations around architecture. This particular event didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, take place in Chicago or New York, so tied is Ghost to its own intellectual and physical place: this farm 13 miles from the nearest town—with its views of inlets and islands, sweeping green pastures, and thick stands of spruce—serviced only by a one-lane dirt road.
If you'd like to know more, Brian MacKay-Lyons gave an interview to our sister magazine RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECT. You can read it here.