Q & A: Brian MacKay-Lyons

The Ghost site is located on an ocean estuary near the spot where the French first landed in North America in 1604. Ghost 6, pictured above, was inspired by the traditional Nova Scotia lighthouse. Photo by James Steeves.

Each summer, architect Brian MacKay-Lyons takes a break from his award-winning practice, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, to host Ghost Lab, a program where students and practitioners design and build a project on the dramatic coastline of his farm in Nova Scotia. Originally started in 1994 as a building exercise for nine architecture students, the project has grown into an intensive two-week workshop meant to steep participants in architectural principles and experimentation. This June marks the tenth anniversary of Ghost, and to honor the occasion, Princeton Architectural Press is releasing Ghost: Building an Architectural Vision. The book, which comes out today, follows the first nine Ghost Labs through a series of essays, images, sketches, and historical documents. The book not only presents a wonderful snapshot of Nova Scotia’s vernacular architecture but also illustrates the power of collaboration to create modern structures informed by traditional building techniques. MacKay-Lyons spoke with me from his office in Halifax about the project, his architecture practice, and his love affair with a particular landscape.

How did the landscape look when you launched Ghost in 1994?

Historically, the area had been farmland and a fishing village. There were ruins and the remnants of stone walls and foundations for basements of houses. It had grown up almost entirely into a mature forest. When we started, we had to clear a spot for tents and a spot to build. The first Ghost was made from logs that we cut out of the woods.

You’ve been studying the history of Nova Scotia and its building traditions for years.

Most of my friends couldn’t wait to leave Nova Scotia and see the rest of the world. I had the opportunity to travel a lot when I was a kid, so that meant having some perspective. I started studying the building traditions in a more seriously way in architecture school when I was a student. I went to the city and was told by the professors that where I was from was nowhere, that the vernacular architecture traditions weren’t architecture. The more they told me that, the more interested I got in it, to prove to them that they were wrong.

Would you say that mentality is still prevalent in architecture schools today, that there is still a disconnect from the material culture of our past?

In a certain way it’s worse. When I was studying, it was the late-modern period, when there were a lot of failed European architects teaching, but architecture was still about building things. It wasn’t a virtual topic yet. The more the computer has become a main tool, the less concrete architecture has come. The culture of universities and therefore the culture of architectural education have changed. It’s become more esoteric. I think professors have quite a vested interest to keep it that way, frankly.

You end each Ghost Lab with a party for the village. Is that an attempt to communicate that architecture is communal, not esoteric?

Architecture can feel disconnected from society. People are made to feel they are not part of the cognoscenti. As a democratically minded person, I’ve always resented that. Architecture is a social art; it’s important that it is accessible in terms of its meaning. I think young people go into architecture because they know it’s about the environment, they know it’s about the community, they know it’s about making things—but it doesn’t take long before architectural education changes things. Suddenly, you’ve lost your common sense; you left it at the door of the monastery.

The projects at Ghost pay great attention to the topography, the weather, and the landscape, which are all very common sense elements.

It seems like the site itself is very empty and sparse, with no clues. It seems like there’s not much there. And yet if you train yourself to see what’s there, to be a good observer, or have empathy with place, then you see lots of stuff and lots of possibilities. I’ve trained myself to mine the place for meaning, to see it. This comes from twenty-five years of going out with my chainsaw and my dog, and clearing the land and building fences. It comes from sitting on the stump of the tree I just cleared, and looking down into the valley and trying to understand it. It’s a love affair, really, with this piece of property.

From the beginning, you have included a master builder at the lab.

The master builder use to be the builder, the engineer, the architect, all wrapped up into one in the Middle Ages. It’s a very democratic model, but it’s also hierarchical in that people contributed based on their level of knowledge and skill. That’s a very important message to young people in a relativistic age when we’ve kind of oversimplified democracy. People need to understand that excellence matters and experience and skill matter. It’s like the story of Abe Lincoln. He can grow up in a log cabin and become the president of the United States, and the idea that that’s possible is very important. That’s the democratic idea. But he doesn’t get to be the president if he’s no good.

It’s amazing what you get done in such a short amount of time. I imagine the speed with which you realize these projects contributes to the need for a hierarchy of order.

As I say in the book, teamwork is learned quickly when there’s too much to do. At the Ghost site, if you are a prima donna, you get bypassed. There’s no time for it.

How did your neighbors react to that first Ghost project?

One of the reasons we keep doing this thing is because it reaffirms that society knows what architecture is, and that they actually have an innate curiosity about it. The neighbors are intellectually curious. Some of them have PhDs; others can’t read or write, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s a natural curiosity. They want to see what the young people are doing that year and they come for the party. We start the bagpipes at dusk and they come.

I loved reading about Albert Oxner, an elder in the community who cannot read or write, and the story he tells you about how he and his father first came to shingle their barn. Our culture can tend to value those doctoral degrees, but in truth, what we can learn from a man like Albert about building and its evolution is invaluable.

Especially today when there is so much interest in issues of the environment—as if that is some kind of new fashion, which drives me crazy. There’s a tremendous amount of environmental knowledge that was in the heads of those kinds of people.

You write of how everything was used, nothing went to waste—even the shell carcass of the lobster was returned to the soil.

That’s right. Of course, we are a long way from that today in our society in general. I don’t know how we can get it back, for all our talk about environment. Everybody’s an expert in “greenness.” Yet we’re doing much worse. We can’t go back to a subsistence economy; it’s naïve to think that’s going to happen. I just spent a month in Mali, in West Africa, and it’s still like that there. Every single tin can, everything is recycled. When you don’t have anything, you don’t waste much. It’s hard to know how we get smart like that again in this fat world that we live in.

Nova Scotia is not immune to change, and you note that tourism and summer homes there are on the rise.

It’s happening slower than other places, but it’s happening. I don’t want to come across as some kind of Luddite, some kind of conservative person who isn’t interested in the future. What you don’t see in the book is the architecture that we make in our practice in this landscape, which is extremely modern. We’re not interested in turning the clocks back, but there is that dilemma about continuity versus progress.

When you’re doing a new project, like your commission for the Canadian Embassy in Bangladesh, do you budget in time to research and to immerse yourself in that culture in advance of putting pen to paper with a design?

No. One thing that is often assumed is that you do analytical work before you design something. If you are a designer, whether you are a designer of software or a designer of toothbrushes, your medium of observation is design. You palpate the world by proposing things, and you learn about the world by the way the world reacts to the things you add to it. I think it’s a non-designer’s approach to do a whole bunch of analysis about a culture and then design something. We jump in and start designing in a participatory way.

You can live in a place for your whole life and never see it. You ask someone to draw the house they grew up in; they probably can’t. If you train yourself to be a good observer, you can see things very quickly. When I flew in to Bangladesh during monsoon season, I saw that ninety percent of the country was under water. It was a big river delta, and it was full of silt and teeming with people. It didn’t take long to realize the building would be made out of brick from the Ganges Delta, and there would be good bricklayers who would be affordable. It took about ten minute to figure that out. The Canadian government, of course, is not interested in that because bricks aren’t spiffy enough. But you learn to see quickly. When I walk on the beach with my friend who has been painting for fifty years, he sees colors that I can’t see. It’s about the discipline that you’re in.

What about the preparation for Ghost? Do you come up with a basic concept of what you hope to achieve and then go for it, or is there more preparation in thinking about how you will achieve that summer’s building experiment?

It’s ironic, because it’s high stakes, right? I love this place and I don’t want to ruin it with some half-baked project cluttering the landscape. I think about it a lot, and I think about it in advance, in a kind of pre-architectural way, a very abstract way. The sketches that are in the book, that begin each chapter, are sketches that I drew live the first day with the participants. In every case, they are done live on the spot and we tell ourselves, “We’ve got till noon.” If we don’t have a concept before noon, we’re in trouble. Frank Lloyd Wright says if you don’t get an idea on the site on the first day, you’re not going to get one. It’s a bit reckless, actually. But there are lots of corrections in the process, because we have smart colleagues who take part and a really good structural engineer and some really good builders. Our architectural practice is much more methodical.

One of the essayists talked about this idea that you instill in the participants. He says you encourage “thoughtful play” during these summer retreats.

People who choose a life in architecture want to believe that it’s going to be fun. It’s like being a child all over again. If you go into a life in architecture without a sense of that, then you are really going to be unhappy. Ghost is a way to remind everybody about why they went in to architecture, even if it is a bit utopian or idealized. That’s ok. Seeing the world through rose-colored glasses has its value. I criticized the priesthood of architectural professors, and of course I am one; I’ve been one for twenty-five years. There’s a good side to the priesthood, and that’s to keep the lights on in tough times. To keep the lamp lit. The world can be going to hell in a handbasket, and the economy can be down around your ankles, and the whole thing can look pretty bad. Then it’s even more important to be optimistic.

Do you believe we are in dark days now?

Yeah, kind of. I’m not going to go and hide. It may seem like it from New York, like I’m hiding on the fringes of the world. We have empathy for the world; we’re not hiding from it.

At one point you stopped Ghost for a few years. Why did you start again?

There was no guarantee that it would keep going. We didn’t know that there was going to be a party every year until people started coming to the bagpipes [announcing the start of the party]. Then we thought, This is socially sustainable; I guess we should keep doing it. The great thing about the Ghost is that we reevaluate it each year. It’s not bureaucratic, it’s not attached to the university where I teach, so it can adjust. It’s nimble enough not to stagnate, and every year we reinvent it.

What are your plans for this summer’s project?

We will develop a minimum house prototype. The essential house, if you will. I’m really interested in beginnings and origins and zero points of things and digging back. We’re hoping this year to go back to the spirit of that first Ghost, the glowing lantern, by doing a modest house all over again. Once more with feeling, as they say.

Can you tell me more about the design?

One thing that’s important is this idea of “zero,” as I call it, this idea of minimum. There’s a universal aesthetic dimension to it: elegance is a word that they use in the sciences and in every field, and it means the same thing in every discipline. In architecture that means something that is accessible, affordable, and it might involve minimum labor, so it somehow connects it to ideas of material culture. We’ve always done a lot of little houses in our practice—one a year, at least, that’s under $100,000—to try and prove that you can make architecture out of something very simple and that there can be dignity in living in something that’s not expensive. I’m a hopeless democrat, I guess. For this year’s house, one of the things we’re trying to investigate is how a rural-house prototype has the DNA to become a good urban-house prototype. This one will probably be dismantled, and the plan is to rebuild it in the lobby of Canada House, in Trafalgar Square, next fall in London. That’s where we are now, and between now and June we’ll have to get a lot clearer.


The first Ghost in 1994 had participants build over the original foundation of a historic home. They wrapped the structure in a translucent sheath, lit it from the inside, and had a party for the neighbors. MacKay-Lyons once described it this way: “Close your eyes and imagine a foggy mid-summer’s night. Imagine the glowing, translucent ghosts of archetypal buildings on the ruins of an abandoned village at the edge of the world.” Photo by Nicole Delmage.


MacKay-Lyons uses the beach as a drawing board. Photo by Manuel Schnell.


The end of the year party after Ghost 8 in 2006. Photo by James Steeves.


MacKay-Lyons closely examines the vernacular architecture of the region. Above is his study of barns.


“Technology is understood by making,” MacKay-Lyons writes. “Pragmatism is the best teacher.” In Ghost 3, participants addressed the instense wind loads carried off of the Atlantic and created a “wind tunnel” out of recycled lumber and panels of corrugated polycarbonate. Photo by Brian MacKay-Lyons.


Christine Macy, a critic invited to the first Ghost Lab, writes in the book: “By allowing a multitude of ghosts—’generations of ghosts’—to speak, we can break the domination of the present, open ourselves up to memory and heritage, and ultimately think about life beyond the present—toward survival of the larger culture and the world we live in.”

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