Native Language: Brian MacKay-Lyons

For starters, he’s never been on the Internet.  And as far as that’s concerned, he’s never even turned on a computer.

“It’s just not that interesting to me,” said Brian MacKay-Lyons of the groundbreaking Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  “If I got on, I might not ever come out.  It’s a way to protect myself from getting sucked down that rabbit hole.”

That’s not to say that the rest of the talent in his firm – partner Talbot Sweetapple and the other eight architects, the single intern or the two administrative staffers – aren’t computer literate.  It’s just that Brian prefers to stay in touch with the real world in other ways, communicating what he finds there in a livelier, more engaging manner. 

“The effect is that I can still smell the browning leaves in the fall, and be alive in the actual world,” he said.  “I find that sketching is a lost art and a powerful tool.  If you can’t draw an idea live, and in three dimensions, you’ll never drive the bus.  There’s immediacy and excitement in the conversation because of it – people feel the marks in relation to the words.”

His architecture is informed by his region.  And though he’s based in Nova Scotia, his site-sensitive designs have snugged up to the landscapes of Canada, the United States, and far-off Bangladesh.  “You look at the manners and learn at home, then take it out to the world,” he said.  “It’s like a tool kit like a doctor carries.  Almost all our models come from vernacular building here – it’s cultural, and how things work.”

His minimalist “Messenger House” hugs the Nova Scotia land and takes its cues from surrounding agrarian buildings.  It’s built on a light platform, framed with two-foot by six-foot wooden beams, for a near-banal appearance.  “It’s what everybody does here – it’s cheap and accessible,” he said.  “It pays attention to the architecture here and then makes peace with that.  You may hate the buildings made from two-by-fours, but the fact is they exist, and you need to pay attention to them.”

His solar-passive “Sliding House” is nestled onto a hillside, tightly relating to the land where it rests, rather than to the horizontal band of ocean that it faces.  “This is the way the land works here,” he said.  “It’s a really simple house that’s close to being banal, or not there at all.  If it were any simpler, it would disappear altogether.”

Regionalism to this architect is not a style, but a method.  It’s a transportable set of typologies drawn from his rural roots.  “All the work we’ve done is traceable back to my barnyard,” Brian said.  “The landscape comes first and the buildings second.”

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