Architect influenced by native landscape

MIDDLEBURY — Brian Mackay-Lyons likened his native Nova Scotia to an “ocean-coated Vermont,” in a talk he delivered at Middlebury College’s Dana Auditorium on Thursday, Oct. 8.
“It’s a real treat to see the beautiful Vermont landscape,” the internationally recognized architect said. “It’s a world-quality place. You know that.”
And a sense of place is exactly what draws Mackay-Lyons to Vermont, along with the additional two Cameron Visiting Architects, who are to take up a brief residency on campus this fall.
Mackay-Lyons — who has worked on projects ranging from Vermont’s own Marlboro College to the Canadian embassy in Bangladesh — delivered the first lecture in the series. He hails from the small coastal village of Kingsburg in Nova Scotia. He is an architect who designs using “regional modernism” and he focused on two themes in his presentation: landscape making and community.
“I’m maintaining a utopian position,” he said. “I’m trying to improve the world through architecture rather than consume it. It’s a grassroots, new-world view of culture.”
A great deal of Mackay-Lyons’ early work was located in and around his tiny coastal village. His buildings hug the landscape, cling to rocks and trace the horizon. It is a landscape that Mackay-Lyons knows well.
“I grew up in a ship-building context,” he said. “I grew up playing in the wood shavings.”
The Nova Scotia landscape, like any landscape, he said, must be taken into the highest consideration when working on a project.
“Learning about the climate is necessary, learning about the south side needing a fresh coat of paint more often, learning about the inter-tidal zone,” he explained.
As he spoke Mackay-Lyons clicked through slides of his work — ultra-modern buildings that bespoke of the traditional architecture of his village — barn-like structures with slick interiors.
The small structures take up tiny portions of the land that he builds them on, and every beam, window, nook and cranny serves a purpose. Mackay-Lyons described them as “shrink-wrapped” architecture — over the course of his lecture he used a number of original metaphors in this same vein.
He described one rather simplistic home as “a cabinet with a roof over it.” Another he likened to a “a bite out of a piece of cheese.” The outside of the home was 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.”
Both Mackay-Lyons’ work and manner of speech retained a kind of fresh perspective.
“I look to vernacular buildings for inspiration, mostly because my professors back in architecture school were basically failed European architects who told me right away that I was a hick and there was no place for me in architecture,” he said. “What I do is basically take an ordinary house and make something extraordinary out of it.”
Middlebury College’s visiting architect program was established and endowed by the Cameron family to allow Middlebury’s Architectural Studies program to bring in a practicing architect to work alongside students and enrich the curriculum. In the past, the college has invited just one architect for the fall semester, but this year, the department went in a new direction.
“After the first three years, we decided that we would step back and take stock and see where there were opportunities to experiment with the structure,” said John McLeod, a professor of architecture at the college.
McLeod explained that this year, they are going to try a model where they are bringing in three different architects for what he calls “mini residencies.”
“Now we can offer that many more voices to the students,” he said.
And those voices are all quite individualized, according to McLeod.
“We really try to select visiting architects who have a deep sense of place in their work,” McLeod said. “Typically, they’ve each come from regions that are rich in identity.”
Mackay-Lyons, the first of the three fall 2010 Cameron Visiting Architects, was raised and has long lived and worked in maritime Nova Scotia. Susannah Drake, the second visitor, who will arrive on Oct. 20, grew up looking up at the New York City skyline and Turner Brooks, the final visitor, scheduled for December, is a native Vermonter.
“There’s really a value in bringing in architects from different regions,” McLeod said. In the past, the college’s visiting architects have come from the Ozark region of Arkansas, Boston, Seattle and the Canadian Maritimes.
“It’s a great way to bring different perspectives to the students here,” he added.
But McLeod and the students are not the only ones who are thrilled by the opportunity.
“I think the architects really enjoy the opportunity to work at Middlebury and with bright, thoughtful students within a setting that has such a strong sense of place,” McLeod said.
Another important aspect of the program, according to McLeod, is that each of the visiting architects must both practice and teach. The program prides itself on this combination of interests and talents — all of the Middlebury architecture professors practice their craft independently, along with working with the students.
And the same rule applies to any visiting architects. Drake, he said, teaches at Harvard, Turner at Yale and Mackay-Lyons is a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
“All of us in the department practice and teach — really, it’s two sides of the same coin,” McLeod said.
The work of Brian Mackay-Lyons is currently on display in the lobby of the Johnson Memorial Building at Middlebury College. The second Cameron Visiting Architect lecture, featuring large-scale and landscape architect Susannah Drake, will be held on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. in Johnson 304.
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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