Globally Renowned. Nationally Respected. Locally Underestimated.
But Brian MacKay-Lyons wouldn’t have it any other way.
[EDIT]’s Editor-in-Chief James Mullinger finds out why one of Canada’s greatest architects is still taking risks after more than 30 years at the top of his game.
Photographs by Doublespace Photography
Brian MacKay-Lyons was born in 1954 in the small Nova Scotian community of Arcadia. He graduated from the Nova Scotia Technical College in 1978 and was awarded the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Student Medal.
After studying in China, Japan, California and Italy and working with Charles Moore, Barton Myers and Giancarlo De Carlo, Brian returned to Nova Scotia in 1983 to challenge the historical Maritimes “brain drain” trend, to make a cultural contribution to the province where his Acadian and Mi'kmaq ancestors had lived for centuries. In 1985 he founded Brian MacKay-Lyons Architecture Urban Design in Halifax. Twenty years later, Brian partnered with St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador–born Talbot Sweetapple to form MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects (MLS). Their team is made up of Managing Principal Melanie Hayne and Design Associate Shane Andrews. The firm has built a reputation for design excellence, winning more than 100 awards internationally.
A professor at Dalhousie University, MacKay-Lyons has been teaching architecture in the region for more than three decades. He is a hero, a titan of the architecture world and an inspiration to many. As a reader of [EDIT], you will know his name. But if you don’t, he doesn’t care. His work speaks for itself and, if you take any interest in world-class architecture, you know of the Shobac project in Kingsburg, Nova Scotia: the grand-design cottages that have become an agricultural community on a remote cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors from around the world stay at any of the four cabins, studio, schoolhouse, barn, Point House or Enough House, which have to be seen to be believed. Or perhaps you have admired the property he built for a couple from Kentucky (on the cover of this issue). You almost certainly have marvelled at the Ship's Company Theatre in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, or the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, or the School of Business at the University of Prince Edward Island. Every project is distinctively beautiful; every project is uniquely MacKay-Lyons. He is currently working on the Queen’s Marque project, the colossal $200 million, five-acre Halifax waterfront project that comprises luxury apartments, conference centre and the most premium hotel resort in Atlantic Canadian history. It is, for want of a better phrase, a bona fide game changer for the East Coast of Canada.
James Mullinger spoke with him from his office in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. (MLS also have an office in Denver, Colorado. Their main headquarters are in Halifax, Nova Scotia.)
[EDIT]: Where do you spend most of your time?
BRIAN. We have offices in Halifax, Denver and Lunenburg. And because we live much of the time at Shobac, we have a studio there. The Halifax offices are where most of the architects sit. The Denver office has a few people right now. We go there en route to projects in the United States, where we are doing a lot of work. We set that office up to better serve our clients there. It’s a little crazy right now. Because of what we do, we never know where a call will come from. Not everyone wants to work with people like us because we see fancy architecture as an art — as a mother of the arts, as they used to say in the Renaissance. We just have to go where the clients want something interesting. It’s less about being here (in Nova Scotia) in the traditional sense. We're an international practice, and most people don't even know that we are located here.
[EDIT]: And you don't need them to know that you are here. You just need the right people to know.
BRIAN: Yes, you just need something to work on. You need someone who wants to do something interesting, and you’re good to go.
[EDIT]: I imagine that when a client comes to you, you are screening them as much as they are screening you because you want to produce a certain type of work, an artistic type of work. You don't want something just to be functional. Do you have criteria for ensuring that the client is going to be of your way of thinking?
BRIAN: We are looking for clients who will engage in the process. We are looking for people who are interested in the work and are interesting in their own right and will make for a fun process together. You do have to develop an instinct for people. It doesn’t mean people have to be wealthy; they just have to have the ambition to do something great. There is patronage work and transactional work, which means speed-sensitive and they (clients) don't have the same aspirations.
[EDIT]: You are currently working on the B2 Lofts in Lunenburg, and they are absolutely stunning. How did you create something so current but stay so faithful to the surrounding area’s historical shipbuilding traditions?
BRIAN: Over the years my wife and I have acted as architect and developer several times. In the old days you did that when you didn't have any work. You would go to a bank and borrow some money, and that was always about being idealistic about the city. B2 is called what it is because that is the course number of a class that I teach at Dalhousie. It’s about the house and the town. I teach students a sense of decorum and propriety: how to work in a place that has heritage, topography. We built this thing and we borrowed a lot of money to build it and we named it after the course at Dalhousie. We have done this before. A lot of the projects we are known for are these eco-urban projects that are utopian: high-density, low-rise, high-amenity. We have an office that we built in Halifax on the premise of taking an existing building in a historic neighbourhood and incorporating town houses and building an architecture office. We did that on Gottingen Street, in Halifax, and we built a few town houses to help the value there. We are always working on these urban or proto-urban — if you were from the country — projects. We are doing this in towns to show that or to prove that it is possible.
[EDIT]: At what point did you realize that you wanted to open your practice in Halifax?
BRIAN: I grew up in a little village a long way from Halifax. Most of my friends couldn’t wait to get out of there. They didn't have the opportunity to have the perspective that I have. I travelled with my parents a lot. So, it's a little bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: you go out and see the world and then realize there is no place like home. For my wife and me, our families were here. It just made sense. We had been living in Los Angeles and in Italy and in Japan, but in the back of our minds we knew this would be the place where we wanted to have a family. I had the advantage and the disadvantage of being totally naive. All you get in the Maritimes is people saying, “Why do you try so hard? It’s not worth that!”
For instance, when they were building the Halifax Central Library we were really shut out of the process, in part because if we were given a shot at it they wouldn’t be able to give it to the people they knew they wanted to give it to — the architects from Denmark who designed it.. It wasn’t a sour grapes thing, but I was on CBC radio and I said: “Well, what do you expect? We are in the Maritimes where they eat their young.” And I said that my problem was that I had to go to school on Monday and tell my students that it paid to be an A student. One of the people who was listening to that radio program was the owner of Queen’s Marque (Armour CEO Scott McCrea). He said, “You are right. There is a real problem in the Maritimes with attitudes, but we can do it here.”
I resent the idea that nothing can happen in the Maritimes. We operate and succeed in spite of it. You take encouragement from where you can find it, so we get it from our peers all over the world. It breaks your heart: you just get kicked in the head in the Maritimes, and then you get a big break from the international architectural community. Someone calls you from the top of the mountain in Utah and say they want to build a house there. If you don't go to the cocktail parties in Halifax, nobody knows who the hell you are, so I guess you are what you eat. Someone said to me one time that there is no shortage of food at the dump! The crows never go hungry.
[EDIT]: When did you realize you wanted to be an architect?
BRIAN: I really decided to be an architect when I was four years old and travelling in Europe with my parents. I was standing by a column in Rome with my brother. It was like a lightning bolt hit me. Dal was the place locally that you went to. When I got there, it was pretty discouraging. There were some great professors, as there always are, and there were a lot of not-very-good ones: failed European architects who thought you had no business there and that where you come from has nothing to do with architecture and you should leave! If it hadn't been for a few other professors who were really encouraging I would have left. I decided to stick with it — mostly just to give the bad ones the finger. I had a vested interest in developing a culture that was more grassroots and less elitist.
[EDIT]: And that dictates how you teach now, doesn't it?
BRIAN: Yes. Because I think culture derives from the poor. You might as well start there. Everybody knows that. French cuisine is based on starvation. Jazz comes from the Delta blues. I am hopelessly a Democrat that way. When I was in school there was a book called Architecture Without Architects. The book reminds us that all the best places in the world are wonderfully vernacular. If you go to school the first day and they say, “You hick!” you say “Okay, then I'm going to be a third-rate version of you, which is third-rate already, or I am going to be a first-rate hick!” So that is what I decided to be.
[EDIT]: The Shobac project is unlike anything Atlantic Canada has seen before.
BRIAN: I have always had this interest in having a farm and cultivating the land — wanting improvement, so to speak. So, we were buying little pieces of land and, because I was a frustrated young professor-slash-architect, I went to the school one day — to the student union — and I said, “Close your eyes and imagine flying over the bones of a forgotten village at the end of the earth. If you want to come and build something, come with me.” A bunch came. We built the first of a ghost project there.
I did that because I wanted to change what I had to put up with. You go into architecture because it’s about the environment. It's about place, landscape, making things and community. When you go to architecture school, you can have that bred out of you pretty quickly. I wanted to catch young people early, and so we started to build these things, which became a thing, the Dalhousie Free Labs. At a certain point, we took it out of the university, and we made it something more independent and more international, supported by a loose consortium of architecture schools and practices from around the world. We had taken it out of the university because colleagues were jealous, as often is the case at a university. Then it became well known, which made people more jealous! It took 25 years to do it.
And then we started uncovering all these ruins. And then we started building among those with students, and we design-built Shobac. They were designed to be built in a week. Our school became known as the alternative architecture school in the world, where people would go for a year. We had a virtual conference in 2011, and we brought back all these guest speakers and architects and virtual faculty that we had had.
So that's what happened over a bunch of years. It left us with a bunch of buildings that had started as experiments. These got more and more serious, and we had to get mortgages and make them into real buildings. I put my family in debt over that! We had to rent them out, and Shobac became a retreat, a place for people that people rent from us, like cottages. We fell into it mostly by being angry, and then we got stuck with all this stuff! You stick your family with it too. But if you believe in things you must do things.
And then you get something like Shobac at the other end, and then people hire you because of those values. They recognize the values of landscape, stewardship, community, environmental sustainability, which leads to "So why don’t you come and design a town for us in Muskoka?" Or a town for us in Utah? You are what you eat. Imagine taking 25 years just to clear-cut the trees? People will come to you because of that. The people who told you along the way that it's not worth it, they turned out to be wrong.
[EDIT]: Most people would assume you are slowing down at this stage of your career, but you are taking as many risks as ever.
BRIAN: It's a bit of a problem. Ask my wife. I am lucky that Marilyn is here. Her dad was even crazier than me, so she is very much part of keeping it real.
[EDIT]: Passion is everything. The curse in the world is not having passion. A project as radical and stunning as the Smith residence in Upper Kingsburg (pictured on the cover) doesn’t come about without a huge amount of passion and drive.
BRIAN: It’s a great story actually. It’s right out of the book, The Fountainhead. Its author, Ayn Rand was a bit of a crazy person and also the mother of libertarianism. The Fountainhead is about an architect who is loosely crafted around Frank Lloyd Wright. It turns out to be kind of true. Libertarian friends of mine say I am a libertarian. I say, “No, I am not.” And they say, “What do you do when somebody tells you to colour inside the lines? You colour outside of them.”
So I got a cold call that started out like, “Hi my name is Mr. Smith. Y’all don't know me…” He was sitting with his Sunday coffee reading Dwell magazine, he saw one of our projects and he was deeply moved by it. He picked up the phone, and the rest just happened. He came up, we did a sketch together in an old ruin next to his site, and he said, “Okay, tell me when it's finished.” He is a real patron of the arts. We spent a couple of years building that. It is now occupied. It was really a chance to take it up a notch. A smart friend of mine said you have got to know when a pitch comes across the plate whether you can hit it out of the ballpark or not. It was a great client, a great site, a good budget. With great ambition.
[EDIT]: What brought him to Nova Scotia?
BRIAN: It was seeing our work in the magazine primarily. He is a collector, among other things, and he collects art and architecture. He really wanted a project, and he said, “I guess I must move to Nova Scotia then!”
[EDIT]: That is a sign that you are making a difference for the Maritimes — when people love your work so much that they come here just to work with you.
BRIAN: This client does other things: we are doing a wonderful project in Cape Breton — we helped to buy a mountain there. We are doing a real social-impact-investment project on a farm there. It's really a Shobac all over again! But on a bigger scale.
[EDIT]: How do your clients find you? Through word of mouth and your reputation?
BRIAN: Yes. I would say. I told you the story about Queen’s Marque. You just do what you believe in — you say what you think is right and ethical, and the right people will find you based on your values. After a while you can see it coming, recognize it when you see it.
[EDIT]: Obviously, many of these projects go on for many years. Do you need to plan ahead what your project will be in a year or two years or five years, or do you just take it one day at a time?
BRIAN: We mostly take it as it comes. I am always thinking about where the practice is going. You try to sharpen your view on things, whether it’s environmental sustainability, for example. If you teach, you have to take all the messy anecdotal experience from practice and turn it into something that you can teach people. My role is to try and see patterns in what we do but mostly from a content point of view, not necessarily from a strategic point of view. We moved back to the Maritimes partly because we wanted to make contributions to the small communities like the one where I grew up. A project like the Beaverbrook Gallery is an important one. You like to think that if you are internationally known you will get more of those. But that doesn't really hold true necessarily. We moved here to do meaningful community work, but we don't get too many opportunities to do that.
[EDIT]: I have friends from London and New York whom I take to the Beaverbrook, and they are like, “Wow, what is this world-class gallery doing in this small place?” On a project like that, did you find the people you were working with were on board with making something so radically different to what might be considered typical New Brunswick architecture?
BRIAN: They were great. We had a good client there. We had a terrific CEO in Bernie Riordon. We had a terrific curator in Terry Graff. We had a great board led by Allison McCain. Other patrons of that project were Sandra and Arthur Irving. So, we had really great people to work with. We did the master plan for it — and for its future development. Of course, the project has been a great success. But then all the people we had worked with moved on, and they said, “Okay, we are going to hire someone from Toronto now.” We know it’s a political thing — it has nothing to do with us. It’s back to the way things are in the Maritimes. Institutional memory is shorter today because people move on. You might have a great working relationship with people, and then they disappear.
[EDIT]: I can relate. I find this in both my careers as a comedian and as a magazine editor. People here often have this mindset that you need to go outside the Maritimes to find the best, which is just so wrong. We get penalized by this internal snobbery for being here.
BRIAN: Yes, it’s a sign of low self-esteem to believe that imported wine is always better. Even now we still suffer from that. I don't know what to say. It doesn't go away. In the Maritimes we eat our young.
[EDIT]: It must have meant a lot when you won the Gold Medal from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Obviously, you don't do what you do for awards, but it must have meant something to be recognized by your contemporaries.
BRIAN: Yes, it means something to be recognized by your peers. A peer group is not perfect, but it's the closest thing to a meritocracy. If you are good at what you do, you care what your peers think. Those are the higher standards that are more global. Yes, so it meant something for sure.
[EDIT]: Thank you for being so frank and honest with me.
BRIAN: Well I guess the older you get, the more that's just the way it is.
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here.