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Notions: Offbeat architect charms reporter

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Posted on October 11, 2010 | Blog Category:
By Tamara Hilmes



Even Plato had a sense of humor, I discovered recently, when interviewing Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Victor Nuovo earlier this week. The ancient Athenian philosopher was able to laugh at himself in that charming, self-deprecating way that has a way of winning people over.

Brian Mackay-Lyons, a world-class architect who hails from Nova Scotia, has got this down pat.

“I’d rather be a first-class hick than a third-rate architect,” he told those who attended his Thursday night lecture at Middlebury College. Mackay-Lyons is the Cameron Architect-in-Residence at the college for the next couple of weeks.

But let me back up a moment — in order for this particular installment of Notions to resonate, I need to frame it with my own, arguably strange, sense of humor.

For me, timing is everything. Non sequiturs — the more absurd the better — when well-placed (is that oxymoronic?), usually get the best of me. There is no better example of this than a typical conversation with my good friend, Colin.

“She had 4,000 dollars,” he would say. “And by dollars, I mean cats. And by 4,000, I mean four.”

I would nearly die right there at the dinner table. It was simply too funny.

Colin’s humor, based on random statements spit out at strategic times, works for a number of reasons. One, you never quite see it coming. And two, even when you do, you can never guess at what exactly he is going to say. His brain, it seems, operates on another level from the rest of ours. His brilliance translates into a unique train of thought that trickles down into this seemingly (but not actually) idiotic style of comedy.

And I cannot get enough of it.

One other example comes to mind, and this one a bit more universal and highly contemporary: the viral sensation “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” If you have not yet seen this particular YouTube clip, I suggest you do so right away. Marcel, like Colin, relies on timing and the element of “what the heck?” to charm his (her?) viewers.

Apparently, it takes nothing more than a tiny stop-action seashell with a glued-on googly eye, bizarre mannerisms of speech and one-liners like, “Guess what I wear as a hat. A lentil” to send me into stitches of that silent, almost painful sort of laughter.

Call me banal. That’s what Mackay-Lyons was once described as by architecture critic Ken Frampton. Like Mackay-Lyons, though, I choose to take it as a compliment.

Mackay-Lyons’ architectural style, like this sense of humor that I so appreciate, is of the people — it’s the nitty-gritty of everyday life. And yet, it takes a certain level of skill to pull off.

My friend — still referring to Colin — is currently enrolled in a six-year, French Literature P.H.D. program at Yale. Just throwing that out there.

And Mackay-Lyons is a world-renowned architect with a unique building style, and an even more unique sense of humor. Both struck me as nothing less than wonderful as I sat through his lecture last Thursday.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t supposed to be funny. This thought certainly entered my mind as I chuckled between slides in what was otherwise a rather silent Dana Auditorium. No one else, really, was giggling to the extent that I was.

But I couldn’t stop — as my grandma would say, I was absolutely “tickled” by his every comment.

He described each project, each building that he offered up on the projector, in such a strange, whimsical way, and yet — it did not even seem to register with him that the analogies that he was spouting weren’t the very first things that popped into everyone’s minds.

“And this one’s like a bite out of a piece of cheese,” he said of the outside of a home in the shape of a rectangular prism with a corner missing. When he moved to showing the inside he added, “it feels like being inside a block of butter.”

He likened another home — one featuring a narrow, wooden staircase — to feeling like the mouse crawling around inside the walls, and another to the “creepy Hansel and Gretel house in the woods.”

His analogies regarding the architect’s process, too, were rather refreshing.

He described his thin-walled work as “shrink-wrapped architecture,” and fancied his role in catering to the community's building needs to be like that of a village physician.

“We like to think of ourselves as country doctors,” he said. “Some people come to us and we tell them, ‘Take two aspirin and go to bed,’ and that’s what this is,” he added, indicating a normal-ish home. “But sometimes people come to the country doctor and ask for brain surgery. And we do that, too.” He then clicked to a university building that he had designed — all steel grids and gleaming windows.

And the list goes on and on. I actually did, at one point, begin to catalog his charming, offbeat descriptions and metaphors that rival that of Yogi Berra, but my notes are simply too extensive to re-type here, though I am still compelled to compile them for my own purposes.

And there’s always the possibility, too, that only my own offbeat sense of humor and I — and perhaps soon-to-be-professor Colin — would appreciate them, anyway.

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