Ghosts in Nova Scotia

January 20, 2012

I’ve just seen the latest AIA Honor Awards on the national website and am hardly surprised by the (yawn) troop of Starchitects who came away with prizes. Two entries, however, seemed promising: a solar house by the students and faculty at Virginia Tech, and something called the “Ghost Architecture Laboratory.”

The solar house was an entry in this year’s Decathlon, and looks much like the other entries but for the fact it had an exhibition inside on sustainability. Kudos for that. Virginia Tech ought to be giving Harvard, Yale and MIT a run for their money.
The latter work, for a historic farm site on the coast of Nova Scotia, is fascinating for its intentions but flawed in execution. Brian Mackay-Lyons is a creative Canadian architect with some familiar ideas about the rift between designers and builders. He owns a beautiful farm on the Nova Scotia coast and has turned it into a laboratory for student-architect-builder collaborations. Every summer for two weeks a group gathers to design and build a quasi-vernacular building on the farm site. Mackay spent years clearing away the detritus of modern interventions to give a better sense of how the coastline looked when traditional fishermen and farmers used the land.

Mackay-Lyons has the right idea about teaching in a craft environment and learning from vernacular builders. He has timber framers working with the teams. Unfortunately, he drank the same Kool-Aid he pretends to eschew and can’t help but inject “design” into the mix. What transpires during these workshops is great for the participants, but less useful as a long-range strategy for architecture and sustainability. There is no suggestion that building re-use or actual vernacular architecture might be the subject of one of these workshops.

Moreover, what is now on the farm site is a collection of rather self-conscious contemporary buildings that look a lot like the work of Mackay-Lyons’s firm. A comparison to Taliesin, made by the AIA jury, is very telling–Frank Lloyd Wright created a similarly self-serving “school” for his disciples in Wisconsin and Arizona more than 50 years ago. All right; architects have big egos and like to see their own ideas parroted by young designers. What’s the harm?

Well, architects trained to look at themselves as “hero-geniuses” in the mold of Wright are prone to give too much weight to the romantic idea that aesthetic merit comes solely¬† from the will of the artist, discounting materials, craft, history and culture. The clash between two visions of the future is not only apparent in Mr. Mackay-Lyons’s dichotomous “laboratory” but also in the buildings now sitting uneasily on the picturesque coastal site. All are intruding objects in a landscape that doesn’t require more modern objects. Less would be better, but architects must make statements, interventions, theories in stone.

How might the new building programs have been accommodated? Easily, within real vernacular buildings moved to the site and placed in a historically resonant relationship to the land and sea. Perhaps the next “ghosts” will have some real spirits inside, as only haunted houses can.