In June, more than 200 architects, historians, educators, and critics gathered on architect Brian MacKay-Lyons’ farm in Nova Scotia. The farm has been home of Ghost Lab, the research arm of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, since 1994. It also is a forum for colleagues and friends who share the firm’s devotion to place, craft, and community. Their virtual discussions became reality when 25 members of the group presented keynotes, panels, and presentations over a three-day period to a sold-out crowd. The impressive roster of speakers included Kenneth Frampton; Glenn Murcutt; Juhani Pallasmaa; Rick Joy, FAIA; Ted Flato, FAIA; Deborah Berke, FAIA, LEED AP; Tom Kundig, FAIA; and many more.
“I’ve known most of these people as close colleagues and friends for a long time,” says MacKay-Lyons, Hon. FAIA, about the speakers. “I’ve known Glenn since 1987, for example, and have done several projects with him.” Mixing historians, educators, and critics with practicing architects (or practicing architects who also are educators and historians) intrigued MacKay-Lyons. Specific themes for the conference included the triumvirate of place, craft, and community, but woven throughout was an ongoing conversation about the state of the profession in both education and practice. “The underlying theme was education, but it was elusive, so it was always dealt with obliquely,” says presenter Marlon Blackwell, FAIA. “I think the biggest challenge will be how to leverage all of this great information and conversation into a solid form of curriculum.”
Blackwell goes on to add that he enjoyed hearing from architects outside the U.S. and Canada, and realizing that they have similar approaches and familiar challenges. “The presenters were grouped according to a theme, which helped us to think about a specific emphasis,” he explains. “But we all shared this approach of generating architecture from ecology and culture and translating that into building anywhere at any scale.” Blackwell also was inspired by seeing how that shared approach can translate into fundamentally different styles and methods of dealing with the circumstances faced by all architects. “It has to do with more than talent,” he says. “It has to do with will, with how you build. It was refreshingly noncynical how we all turn those circumstances into opportunities.”
In addition to formal presentations, conference attendees enjoyed a retreatlike atmosphere of dining and dancing with respected peers in a remote setting, which added to the feel of a large group discussion. According to MacKay-Lyons and Blackwell, there was consensus and discord throughout the conference without either getting out of hand. No one took themselves too seriously and even the surroundings inspired interesting discussions. “Brigitte Shim said this place expresses why we’re here, the craft is found in these buildings, and here we are a community, so we’re acting out the themes of this conference” MacKay-Lyons recounts.
A traveling exhibition and a book are being produced from the conference materials. The exhibition is already in its trial stages and much of the material for the book is collected. MacKay-Lyons isn’t sure what other lasting effects the gathering will have on the profession, but he feels good about what was accomplished during those three days. “The spirit of trust there was amazing,” he says, adding that “people came for the whole thing—no one came and went—and that helped achieve a kind of friendship and geniality that is so valuable.”