Last June, the Ghost Lab—an annual off-road architectural school—hosted a three-day international architecture conference with the theme “Ideas in Things,” intending to offer a critique of the current separation of academy and practice. The results of the conference revealed a neat symmetry: the Ghost Lab had been originally conceived in 1994 by Brian MacKay-Lyons, principal architect of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, to address his frustrations with the state of architectural education and to, in his words, “promote the transfer of architectural knowledge through direct experience.” However, last year’s conference signalled a hiatus in the Ghost Lab program, and possibly a permanent closure. But was it an indication that the problems MacKay-Lyons and his team set out to tackle had been solved, or was it something else? For that, MacKay-Lyon’s story must start at the beginning.
From early in his career, MacKay-Lyons has combined his work as an architect with a contribution to architectural education. A full professor of architecture at Dalhousie University, he has also held numerous endowed academic chairs and visiting professorships at other universities, including the Peter Behrens School of Architecture, in Düsseldorf, Germany, and the University of Houston. His partner (and former student) Talbot Sweetapple also currently teaches as part of the Dalhousie University Faculty of Architecture.
“We’re principally practitioners but also professors,” MacKay-Lyons says. “I’ve always taught in parallel with practice; I see it as all one thing. The intellectual dimension of the work is sharpened by being involved in teaching.”
While the professorial side of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple has brought students from all around the world to Nova Scotia, the practical side has drawn international plaudits. Prior to starting his firm in 1985, MacKay-Lyons worked, travelled, and studied abroad for a number of years, teaming up with architects Charles Moore, Barton Myers, and Giancarlo De Carlo along the way.
However, MacKay-Lyons ascribes his firm’s wide appeal—which has garnered it 86 awards for design excellence—to the universality of its modern, minimal design language.
“Work that is consistently recognized internationally tends to touch on themes that are universal, archetypal,” he says. “There has to be a kind of universal dimension to the work that touches people in other cultures. My view is that you don’t get to those universal principles directly; you find out universal principles from studying things that are very particular. When Monet did his water-lily paintings, he looked to his backyard but arrived at a kind of universal expression. In a way, that’s what I think we do—and most artists whose work has currency outside of where they live. There is this universal side and this regional side to the work.”
The approach of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects is to erase as many lines as possible, so all that is left is the essence, the deeper idea. This idea of the “essential” is something that MacKay-Lyons himself is particularly interested in, and he believes it goes back to the idea of formal archetypes.
The Hill House, completed in 2004, embodies this concept. His research for the project involved the Neolithic courtyard farms found in Ireland and Scotland, and how these ancient architects dealt with the duet of prospect and refuge that is created by such a project—enjoying the view while staying out of the wind.
“Like all the projects, it’s about the land itself—the topography,” MacKay-Lyons says. “A lot of the work we do is really invisible, so that you don’t necessarily know we did it. At the village where the Sliding House and the Hill House are, there are a lot of projects we’ve done that people don’t know we’ve done, because they are so incognito. Sometimes I wake up and think those are the projects that make a better world, where everything is modest, quiet, and contributes to its environment. Our landscape is being destroyed by capital and ego, so maybe it’s time again for some restraint.”
When MacKay-Lyons began Ghost Lab, his desire was to take the “young people out of school for the summer.” Students would come to his farm, in Nova Scotia, where among the sheep, horses, and orchards they would spend one week designing a project and the next week constructing it. Initially, the finished products were temporary, without any long-term purpose. As the lab’s reputation grew, students began to work on more permanent projects to serve as infrastructure, such as studios and cottages, to help house the faculty and student body of, on average, 35 per year. Set atop the stone ruins of a nearly 400-year-old coastal village, the land around the farm became what MacKay-Lyons describes as an “architectural museum.”
“We started by making things that were architectural sculptures in the landscape, and ended up combining that with real functional programs,” he explains. “We built things into the community and made a village there. It’s a little unusual.”
The Ghost Lab isn’t purely a philanthropic initiative; clients of the firm are brought to the site to get an idea of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple’s work, and the founder also describes it as a “kind of lab for our practice, a one-to-one model shop” for research ideas that the firm is involved in. The cottages are rented out to architectural tourists when the school isn’t in session, to help meet the costs of the program.
Following the success of the 2011 conference, attended by 200 people and featuring some of the top architectural minds from around the world, MacKay-Lyons decided to call an end to the Ghost Lab program. But the question on everyone’s mind has been, why?
“When we started the Ghost Lab as an educational critique, it was a timely message,” MacKay-Lyons says. “It’s important to have some humility about things. We did it full of piss and vinegar, but we haven’t fixed the educational problems that we set out to address. I think it made a difference, but it hasn’t been the answer to everything. I’m not sure [design-build] is necessarily the best way to design, for example.”
The financial and time constraints that come with the program also contributed to the decision, although MacKay-Lyons adds that Ghost Lab isn’t bankrupt, either financially or intellectually. In fact, MacKay-Lyons affirms it will most likely reemerge, but possibly with some changes in place. As for a timeline of its return, that’s still up in the air.
“You may as well spend your life doing what you like to do,” he says. “If you’re angry with the way the world seems to be, then go and do something different. That’s what we did. Rather than fester in an architectural school, I got to go out and do something closer to my values. And it’s been successful in that it has allowed me to live and work and raise a family and be part of a community all in one place—that’s been terrific.”