Designing For and With the Landscape: an Interview with MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects | Features

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Cliff House, Tomlee Head, Nova Scotia, 2008 / Photograph: James Brittain

Cliff House, Tomlee Head, Nova Scotia, 2008 / Photograph: James Brittain

In a way, the work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects stands out in that it fits in. That is to say, while so many of their contemporaries orient their work around attention-grabbing icons, the Halifax-based practice led by Bryan MacKay-Lyons and Talbot Sweetapple strives to make buildings that bring attention towards, rather than away from, the landscape.

The work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects isn’t just aesthetically site-specific, it’s also ecologically. In fact, they were recently awarded the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture. To this end, their buildings often involve using local building materials and strategies. More than anything, they tell me, they are inspired by the vernacular. After all, who knows better what is best-suited for a specific region than the people who’ve lived there for generations? At the same time, MacKay-Lyons and Sweetapple derive inspiration from other context-sensitive architects as well as the work of “timeless” architects like Louis Kahn. To them, a responsible work of architecture happens when the universal and archetypal meets the local.

On the occasion of the release of a new monograph of their work, I spoke with MacKay-Lyons and Sweetapple over the phone to discuss their influences, practice, and philosophy.


Mirror Point Cottage, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, 2013-2015 / Photograph: James Brittain

Mirror Point Cottage, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, 2013-2015 / Photograph: James Brittain

You often work in Nova Scotia—how does the landscape influence your practice?

MacKay-Lyons: First of all, we work in Nova Scotia and a lot of other places but certainly we practice here. I think there is lot of that—the landscape drives the practice and the design approach, language, in terms of this idea of stewardship of the landscape. We see architecture as a kind of cultivating influence on the landscape rather than a consumptive one. I think in order to understand how to do that, we tend to look at vernacular or agrarian building traditions because the landscapes that come out of those—the kind of cultural landscape that comes out of those vernacular or agrarian building traditions—are the good ones. Cultures produce beautiful things, beautiful patterns, beautiful ecological patterns. So that’s what we look to and I guess that’s why we are getting this award in Paris next month, which is the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, because of our take [on] landscape and sustainability and stewardship. We look to traditional patterns of settlement and think of ourselves like farmers a little bit.
We see architecture as a kind of cultivating influence on the landscape rather than a consumptive one.

Sweetapple: One thing I’ve learned about farmers lately is their knowledge of the climate and how everything works around that and how everything is a product of that.

MacKay-Lyons: Climate is a big part of it.

Sweetapple: A big part.

MacKay-Lyons: So again, the vernacular building traditions are usually very reliable—like the only really good models for sustainable architecture [derive] from there. Let’s say architecture without architects. You can’t afford to get it wrong if you are a fisherman or a farmer [or] you have limited resources. You tend to do smart things. Things that are ecologically smart because you can’t afford to get it wrong.

That leads into my next question. Your work often involves material constraints. I am wondering how these constraints operate in your practice.

MacKay-Lyons: Wasn’t it Frank Lloyd Wright who said, “Constraints are the architect’s friends”. I think that’s how we look at it and it’s not a religion or it’s not doctrinaire in the sense that we try to use local materials and local building practices wherever we go. Not just at home you know. You learn your manners at home but you have to take the world with you. But we can’t always use all local materials. You know sometimes there is a kind of a pragmatism that tampers that. Like you want to use local species of wood in Nova Scotia and usually you can and sometimes it’s cheap or not too [cheap]. And so you know, if pragmatism clicks and you use the economical alternative which might not always be the local thing.


Lean-to House, Blind Bay, Nova Scotia, 2010-2013 / Photograph: William Green

Lean-to House, Blind Bay, Nova Scotia, 2010-2013 / Photograph: William Green


Two Hulls House, Port Mouton, Nova Scotia, 2008-2011 / Photograph: Greg Richardson

Two Hulls House, Port Mouton, Nova Scotia, 2008-2011 / Photograph: Greg Richardson

I am looking right now at your new monograph and so many of these buildings are in what look like incredibly remote locations. What kind of measures do you take to mitigate your environmental impact when working on such remote locations?

Sweetapple: Even our region—say Atlantic Canada or Nova Scotia—there are so many different sub regions even within Nova Scotia and we rely a lot on, like Brian mentioned, the vernacular and even local builders to find out what’s working there. Like in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the wind is a lot different than in the South Shore of Nova Scotia and our temperature differences are extreme in those two locations. So we really look towards the local builders, the local building culture in those space. 90% of our answers come from that vernacular tradition there.

Building what’s right and what’s good.MacKay-Lyons: The way the building materials weather is different. It varies a lot, like, in the Bay of Fundy where Talbot’s farm is, you got the world’s highest tides and, in Nova Scotia, they’re not […] And so we do different things with eaves, we do different things with protecting the materials based on exactly where we are. So, for instance, on the south coast of Nova Scotia, because it’s…very wet and dry and freeze thaw, it’s sort of mild, so you get ice damps on your eaves, and you get roof leaks if you have overhangs. We’re building in that area, we take the overhangs off and create these sorts of minimalistic details because [we can in] that specific climate, when you’re those few kilometers from the coast. If we’re inland, we might treat our cedar shingles with herbal products that help with fungus and insects and stuff. And [when] we’re right on the coast we don’t, because we say, well the natural pickling from the salt air does those things for you already, so you don’t do that, don’t bother with that because you don’t need to. 

It gets pretty specific and then we’re on the other side of the world building in Bangladesh or something, or down in Utah like we’re at the top of a mountain, it’s all different again. And then the issues are fire and water and other issues. If we’re building in a tidal zone, we’ll put the building up on [stilts] so if there’s a tidal surge in the middle of a hurricane, the building won’t float away, the water goes under the building. So, wherever we are, we try to use the understanding of the local climate as a driver, and building practices that are derived from that.

Sweetapple: It’s also a cultural currency there when it comes to tradition, you know? Building what’s right and what’s good.


Mason House, Herman’s Island, Nova Scotia, 2001-2005 / Photograph: James Steeves

Mason House, Herman’s Island, Nova Scotia, 2001-2005 / Photograph: James Steeves


Jabal al Noor Aliya, Bocabec Cove, New Brusnwick, 2015-present / Photograph: William Green

Jabal al Noor Aliya, Bocabec Cove, New Brusnwick, 2015-present / Photograph: William Green

MacKay-Lyons: And what are people good at doing? You know, you have to recognize the limitations of the skills wherever you are, I think, which is part of what your question’s about. You don’t try for beautiful architectural concrete in a rural area where concrete is just used for basements. You have to detail the concrete according to the skills that are there.

Sweetapple: Brian, you mentioned the Bangladesh project and that was a pretty big test for us on this area regionalism and things like that. Brian and I went there quickly and immersed ourselves in the building culture. That’s all we did for the first couple weeks that we were there. We just went everywhere and we looked at how do you build, how do you build in villages, how do you build in cities, how do you build in and deal with monsoons, how do you deal with the rain? The whole building is a response to a building culture and also the monsoon. So the brick was a no-brainer for us. It was the way to go. It was the most beautiful part of the building actually. That the local craftsmen, they know how to do well. They also have a good concrete church there because, we found out, they smelt down container ships to make rebar. We just cut into the material, built up the material culture and made some poetic but yet pragmatic connections to how you build, where you can get the best quality. I think quality is a key word, there, Brian, when it comes to sustainability and durability and how you build in climates. And that’s a really important part of sustainability.Today, we have too many choices.

MacKay-Lyons: Today, we have too many choices. Like, when they built Sienna, they built the whole city out of terra di Sienna. They had the bricks out of the soil from the place, right? Or in the Dogon regions of Africa. Everything is made out of the local dirt there—traditionally there was not a lot of choice of what you built out of. So there was a tremendous amount of coherence to the place because it was built out of local materials. 

Today, we can buy stuff from any place. Get marble from China or whatever, and so the world is starting to look the same everywhere, kind of like the tower of Babel. These consistent, simple places are disappearing, right? Even in Halifax where we live, the beautiful wooden row-houses are being knocked down to build apartment buildings that looked like they could be anywhere. Right?

Sweetapple: That’s right.


Mirror Point Cottage, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, 2013-2015 / Photograph: James Brittain

Mirror Point Cottage, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, 2013-2015 / Photograph: James Brittain

On the flip side of this, do you find yourself influenced at all by other contemporary practices on the international scale? 

MacKay-Lyons: Inspiration comes from people that are of a like mind to us, just working in other places, whether it’s Francis Kéré working in his community in Burkina Faso or Glenn Murcutt working in Australia where they have a different climate. The values are similar. The architects whose work we admire are similar. There’s something else that is connected to your question. I think, there are two aspects of architecture that we really are interested in: the extreme local and the extreme timeless cross-cultural archetypal in things. So, we’re really inspired by Louis Kahn because his buildings are timeless. I think for work to have international currency, for people in other places to be interested in your work, I think it has to embody those other kinds of essential timeless archetypal qualities that we strive for all the time. I mean Immanuel Kant talked about those qualities as the sublime, right? So we look for universal principals in local applications. I think where culture comes in to architecture is through the material culture, like any anthropologist would tell you. But, we’re also at the same time interested in things that are more universal.In a way, I see a building as a necessary evil

In your book, there’s a text by Juhani Pallasmaa where he describes your work through a phenomenological lens, invoking the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Is that a projection onto your work, or would you say your work is, in fact, driven by a phenomenological approach, and more broadly by philosophy?

MacKay-Lyons: I really thought that was one of the best things in the book—Juhani’s thing and, in particular, the reference to Merleau-Ponty. You know, challenging the subjectivist view of art. He starts by saying we come not to see the work of art, but the world according to it. So, we see our projects not as objects, but we see our projects as being in dialog with their surroundings: with the climates, with the moon, with the sun, with the material culture, with the landscape. [Juhani is] pretty intimately aware of our work. He’s seen lots and lots of it up close, personally. He says a responsible work of architecture enhances the whole setting, or makes you aware of things that are, makes you aware of the climate, or aware of the nature of the landscape, or aware of the horizon, or aware of gravity, or whatever. He’s thinking pretty specifically about our work. Famous historians and critics like him can sometimes be criticized for projecting their own theories on you and what you’re doing. And to a certain extent, that’s really good because they’ve developed theories, their theories are well developed, you know what I mean? Like he’s written fifty books, right? But I think, in this case, he writes what he writes because of an intimate knowledge of the work and how it felt to be in the landscape with our work. I think he was right on about our work—that the buildings are seen as part of the landscape to try and make the landscape better, to improve or cultivate the landscape. 

The other non-object sense of our work is that we see the buildings as helmets that you wear[…] Being inside and understanding where you exist in the world in terms of the sun and the wind and the biography. We really designed the buildings to be like helmets to be inside of. In a way, I see a building as a necessary evil; as a kind of opportunity to improve the landscape and get to use a budget to help you make the landscape better. If you’re building a building in a city like a rural house, it’s a chance to mend the city fabric or improve that fabric. We don’t make a big distinction between the city or the countryside.


de Vries House, Liverpool, Nova Scotia, 2013-2016 / Photograph: William Green

de Vries House, Liverpool, Nova Scotia, 2013-2016 / Photograph: William Green


Photograph: Greg Richardson

Photograph: Greg Richardson

Then my final question relates to your residential work. What are the qualities that you try and instill in a dwelling? How do you try to create the means with which one can dwell? 

MacKay-Lyons: Good question. Deserves a thoughtful answer. 

Sweetapple: I think you touched on a lot of it there, Brian. In terms of dwelling, when you’re dealing with landscape, you have to be aware, you have to create opportunities, not only just to dwell as a building to create protection from the environment, but to actually enjoy the environment around you.

MacKay-Lyons: Well, Glenn Murcutt talks about,—Glen’s kind of a mentor and a friend for a long time—as philosophers before him, that there has to be this kind of combination of prospect and refuge with a dwelling. Either you have to understand the world around you, and feel protected—eyes on the world. He had an interesting quote one time in Nova Scotia when he was giving a talk. He says he designs a window, when you open a window, you want to feel refreshed, but in the summer night by the breeze, but not so much that it disturbs the papers that you’re working on, on your desk. So, in a way, you understand the world through the window. Those are kind of aspects of it. 

In a way, we think, I would say, a house is not a house without focus. Charles Moore talked about the aspects of a room. Enclosure, light, focus. What makes a house a house is a sense of being centered in the world and a totemic element like a hearth or a kitchen island. There has to be this sense of centering-ness about a house. And there are devices that are classic devices for doing that, might be a staircase or it might be a bay window, like at Sea Ranch where I used to work with Charles. So: prospect, refuge, focus, centered-ness. For many of our houses, the place in the house that seems to do a lot of the heavy lifting there is the kind of place where you eat together. In many of our houses, the dining room table is the only place in the house where you can see in all four directions, out into the landscape, and you feel like the centre of the universe. So, there’s the social aspect of centering, right?


The Work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects: Economy as Ethic by Robert McCarter is published by Thames & Hudson and is available here.

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