Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


For Canadian architect Brian MacKay-Lyons his smaller houses and cottages are like a tightly woven poem or a short story. These crafted projects, full of precision and pleasure, form part of an ongoing collection of architectural studies that focus on how such dwellings sit within the landscape in a way that is both quiet and respectful but also innovative and progressive. It’s a kind of ‘invisible architecture’ that MacKay-Lyons has explored to greatest effect in the landscape that he knows best, on the rugged east coast of Nova Scotia.

Rather like his friend and mentor Glenn Murcutt in Australia, MacKay-Lyons has established an international reputation while staying firmly rooted in his own back yard. Most famously, there is his farm by the sea near Kingsburg, around an hour’s drive south-west along the coast from Halifax, where the architect and his family have created an extraordinary micro village of buildings within an ongoing process of architectural evolution.  It is, as the architect puts it, a one to one model shop for exploring themes and interests.

The various layers of settlement at Shobac include ruins of ancient shelters uncovered as MacKay-Lyons cleared and reinstated the farmland here over many years, along with restored and rescued buildings, including a farmhouse from the 1750s, an 1830s schoolhouse, and a 19th century barn. Then there are the newer buildings, including a number built with students from the Ghost Lab: an alternative architectural summer school responsible for a number of cottages and other structures on the coastal campus.

Despite its compact scale, the latest poem stands out from the crowd in more ways than one and has a whole choice of names: The Enough House, The Intern’s House, The Shepherd’s House or The Gate House. With a coat of rusting Corten steel and an outline of graphic, almost child-simplicity, The Enough House forms a dramatic new centre piece for the community, sitting among the wooden cottages and vintage rescue projects.

‘Even though it’s the last or latest piece it actually looks like it might have been the first because it’s the navel of the settlement,’ says MacKay-Lyons. ‘It greets you as you approach the farm, with its blank side to the road and the other side opening up to the valley, with a big window to the ocean, so it is a gate house in a way. It’s right at the centre of the villaqe with a very traditional form but modern materials so there’s also this experiment in tradition and modernity. For a small building, it is loaded with meaning.’

The simple outline of the Enough House was inspired by a memory of a neighbour’s house that MacKay-Lyons remembers from his childhood, while also suggesting an agricultural shed. The building features an open plan living room downstairs, plus a small kitchen to one side, with a loft above with two beds, offering accommodation for either guests or a visiting intern, recruited to help MacKay-Lyons when he is at the farm rather than his office in Halifax, where he spends part of his working week. Engineered by his daughter, Renee MacKay-Lyons, the house sits on a pedestal of concrete fins and forms a prototype for a low cost home that could be replicated elsewhere.

‘We began with this idea of “enough” meaning the minimum,’ says Mackay-Lyons. ‘I like buildings that are silent but have more to say and here it’s about asking what’s the minimum you can have that gives you the most? All serious architects have given some thought to the idea of the affordable house and so there is that ethic and it does have everything that a house needs to have in 70 square metres. That’s interesting to me along with the way that it lives in the landscape. When you are in the building you experience the landscape in technicolour – you can feel it and taste it and understand it, but it’s all done with very modest means.’

The notion of modesty lies at the heart of almost everything that MacKay-Lyons has built. It’s a decidedly contextual approach to projects that feel very much of their place and time, quietly bound to the landscape and their surroundings rather than shouting out their presence. It is, for Mackay-Lyons, a form of good manners as much as anything.

‘You learn your manners at home, at the dinner table and with your parents, and then you take it out into the world with you,’ says MacKay-Lyons. ‘We learn to see landscape, climate and material culture through being rooted to a specific place and you develop skills that are culturally transferrable. Someone once described one of our projects as “monumentally modest” and I like that approach, although it’s not a very fashionable way of looking at things when image is everything.’

Mackay-Lyons grew up in Arcadia, Nova Scotia, which he describes as truly a kind of paradise. His mother’s family have been in the region as far back as anyone can trace, while his father was an Englishman who first came to Canada with the RAF during World War II. As a child, Mackay-Lyons was immersed in the land and his surroundings, but his father also took the family back to England and Europe regularly; he remembers deciding to be an architect at the age of four as he wrapped his arms around one of the columns at the Roman forum.

He studied at Dalhousie University in Halifax - where he has also taught for many years - but also in Japan, China and California. He worked in Italy and with Charles Moore and Barton Myers in the States before returning home, establishing his own practice in 1985. Today, he and his wife Marilyn live on the farm, moving from one building to another as they wish, depending on which of them might be in use or rented out to guests. His daughter Alison is a vet who helps out with the sheep and livestock on the farm and now lives in the original farmhouse; Renee is a structural engineer and son Matthew has just finished his architecture degree. There is a sense in which Mackay-Lyons has embraced the notion of being the ‘village architect’ – with around forty of his buildings in the area around Shobac, although there are also projects across Canada, others in the States and a Canadian Embassy building in Bangladesh.

Mackay-Lyons’ most impactful buildings, like his new Mirror Point House, always emerge from an inspirational and memorable setting. Mirrror Point sits on the edge of a glacial lake in the Annapolis region of Nova Scotia, with the main body of the house raised up on a series of pillars and supports to make the most of the views. A long ribbon of sliding glass slides back from the shingle body of the house, turning the main living space into a giant, open porch. There are two bedrooms on the upper level as well as one below, alongside a sheltered outdoor kitchen and lounge. The house is site specific, but also emerged from the needs of the clients, Hans & Jill Sikkens, who live in London much of the year but wanted a holiday retreat back in Jill’s homeland where she could share time with her husband, children and her mother and her father, who was a scallop fisherman.

‘It is a kind of fisherman’s shack on stilts,’ says MacKay-Lyons. ‘The family story is a good, wholesome story here: the returning daughter, the fisherman father and the three generations in one place. Her father doesn’t like the stairs anymore, so we had to have a place out of the sun where he could be with the kids at the beach but under cover. So this was the genesis of the summer kitchen and living room underneath the house. It’s a study in landscape and prospect and refuge and family.’

At the same time, the house has a lightness to it, as though floating above the ground. It reflects a fascination with the space between land and building, with a number of other MacKay-Lyons houses – including the Cliff House and Two Hulls – also echoing fishing sheds, boat houses and ship building, feeding into fond memories of a time when he would play in ship yards as a child and look upwards to see the exposed wooden bellies of the ships. Here again, the story swings back to the genius loci and the way that vernacular traditions intersect with modern forms and contemporary living within a mesmerizing landscape.

This idea of being able to make an impact from your own back yard was an important lesson for me as a young architect,’ says MacKay-Lyons, who was recently awarded a RIBA International Fellowship. ‘When I was at architecture school we had professors who were failed European architects who told me that I was a hick. So I gave them the finger and decided that I’m going to be a really good hick. I didn’t want to be a third rate version of those guys. I just wanted to be a first rate hick.’


MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple –

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