Raising Architectural Spectres
A rural enclave hunkered down on the craggy coastline of southwestern Nova Scotia provided the home for the tenth Ghost International Architectural Laboratory in the summer of 2008. The two-week design–build workshop for architecture students and practicing architects, organized by Brian MacKay-Lyons of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects of Halifax, not only marked the tenth session of the program, but fittingly heralded the publication of the book documenting the first nine, Ghost, Building an Architectural Vision (Princeton Architecture Press).
While the name “Ghost” seems unusual for a pragmatic architectural experiment requiring participants to work with their hands, it arose for at least two reasons: first, the structures resulting from the process are usually celebrated at the climax of each two-week session by an evening party where they are lighted from within, glowing eerily with a scintillant presence on the landscape. Second, the design lab architecture often recalls, in materials and construction, the vestigial remains of former farm houses and fishing structures in the Upper Kingsburg area. They act as ghostly reminders of the history of a place and its resilient architectural identity.
The workshop, begun in 1994, has attracted architecture students, architects and professors from practices and universities in North America and Europe, and is gradually increasing its international representation. Its appeal to students hinges on the fact that few get this kind of hands-on education in school: they often arrive at the lab with some design knowledge but little building experience. On top of that, this kind of process is steeped in learning about local building traditions and socio-cultural history, which practicing architects too often have no time to investigate when they arrive at a site.
As the recent book explains, the place where Ghost Lab has put its roots is land that MacKay-Lyons, whose family comes from farther down the shore, began to accumulate over 25 years ago. First he and his wife Marilyn bought a 1750s farmstead. Then he began clearing land on the back 40, and started the workshop. For the first five sessions, students and visiting architects erected temporary buildings, often recycling the materials from year to year. Then in 2004—with Ghost 6—the group began building permanent and semi-permanent structures.
While sustainability and the use of local materials inform Ghost Lab’s belief-system, MacKay-Lyons argues this evolves from the respect for the vernacular tradition of the area, not from today’s prodigious bandwagon appeal to go “green.” To be sure, many architects, designers, and engineers are sincerely working on finding ways to reduce the expenditure of wasteful energy and to prevent global warming brought about by energy emissions. But the tendency toward hype and charlatanism in selling new green products taints the appeal of the movement for MacKay-Lyons. So, it not surprising—and it is quite reassuring—that he adheres to sustainability achieved through passive and natural methods.
As the architect points out, traditional cultures depend on sustainability, relying on construction techniques using less energy, and materials that can be recycled when the time is right. Vernacular architecture, according to MacKay-Lyons, is “what you do when you can’t afford to get it wrong.”
Therefore in all the Ghost sessions the architect and the lab participants analyze carefully the indigenous building traditions that have generated the typologies of fishing huts, farmhouses, barns, lighthouses, and even shipyard structures in and around the area. These local structures, built of available woods, such as spruce, fir, pine, hemlok, or eastern white cedar, a favorite material for shingles, are known for their durability and low cost. They have what MacKay-Lyons refers to as “cultural logic,” and even can be aged or stained with cod liver oil in the old-time manner.
Not surprisingly, this thinking reflects the values that Kenneth Frampton presciently advanced in 1983 with his essays, ”Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance, ” and “Prospects for a Critical Regionalism.” Frampton, a Ghost 5 critic in 2003, alludes to these precepts in his recent essay written for the Ghost book, and points to MacKay-Lyons’ aligning the vernacular vocabulary with modern design and construction in his own work and in the lab’s projects. Ghost Lab’s investigation of an evolving universal and local architecture, Frampton argues, is quite different from looking to the vernacular out of a sense of nostalgia. As he explained in his original essay, critical regionalism—of which the Nova Scotia project is part and parcel—seeks an “architectural autonomy” found in the tectonic method of construction.
In late June 2008, some 30 Ghost student-participants gathered at the Upper Kingsburg encampment, supplemented by young architects each representing architectural offices sympathetic to MacKay-Lyons’ mission. Practitioners from Marlon Blackwell Architect in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the Miller Hull Partnership in Seattle, and Rick Joy Architects in Tucson, Arizona all added their expertise. In addition, the group had the benefit of knowledge from guest architect, Deborah Berke of Deborah Berke and Partners in New York. This time, however, the site had changed: no longer was it to be part of the compound at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean where previous Ghost Labs—the permanent Shobac Cottages and Studio along with the horse barn and a tower-like structure—form an enclave.
Instead, the new site was atop a ridge directly up the hill from the cluster, all of which is part of approximately 50 acres of land owned by MacKay-Lyons. Bordering the site is the Messenger II house, which MacKay-Lyons firm completed in late 2002. It is now owned by a couple from the United States who purchased it from the original clients for which it is named.
Before the participants of Ghost 10 arrived, MacKay–Lyons had come up with a general concept for the program. Basically the structure would be a house that was to be pulled apart in two separate buildings, one for the more public living functions, the other for sleeping, with 1000 feet of land separating the two. MacKay-Lyons decided to emphasize the separation as a way of engaging the larger environment.
In describing the program for the Ghost 10’s “1000–Foot House,” MacKay-Lyons pointed out that the structures built along this ridge hold “the proto-urban promise of a ridge village.” An agricultural hauling road connects the domestic works, including the Messenger II house, while along the southern edge of the property, a gravel road skims past the site of the house for sleeping, eventually ending at the original Ghost compound at the water’s edge.
In the space on the ridge between the two Ghost 10 structures, MacKay-Lyons saw the possibility of a “captured landscape” as he told the students, in effect an extended courtyard space. But before design began, the architect talked to the students about the history of the settlement in the area. The place as he explained, is rich in cultural and geographical history, which became more layered after the French settled there following Samuel de Champlain’s arrival in 1604. Known as Acadians, the French were expelled by the British in the mid-18th century. The British in turn gave land grants to German, Dutch, and Swiss settlers who made their living fishing and farming the rocky coast.
Landforms, including drumlins, or hills between lakes left by retreating glaciers, gave the area a rich and visually stunning topography. While the British introduced the grid into planning its colonial towns such as nearby Lunenburg. Settlement along the coast followed the drumlins, often topped by a red barn and a white house.
After presenting this socio-cultural background, MacKay-Lyons, Deborah Berke, the other architect-participants and the students began to design the two structures for Ghost 10. The working process was not as much like an architectural school studio as a design session in an office, where architects split into teams for each project, guided by the project manager and the principal in charge. In this case, the two teams, under the guidance of Mackay-Lyons and Berke with Peter Broughton, an architect from the office of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple in a supporting role, provided the hands-on organization needed for the sessions.
Many students found themselves having to adjust to working in a group rather than developing their own ideas individually, as they had done in school. Some students, used to studio crits from their professors, discovered that in “real life” their ideas might not be accepted, or if they were accepted initially, later could be modified or jettisoned. But the participants seemed to accept the nature of the process with equanimity. During the design meetings, participants usually diagrammed ideas on sketch pads and tracing paper, enlisting the computer to develop their designs. Toward the middle of the first week, Gordon MacLean, a Halifax builder and seasoned participant in Ghost, arrived, as he usually does, to assess the evolution of the designs and to troubleshoot possible problems in transferring works on paper to built form. He also made sure that enough lumber would be ordered for construction. Along with MacLean, Michel Comeau, a structural engineer in Halifax, scrutinized the designs for unexpected complications. With only one week to build, and because the students generally have limited construction skills, all parties wanted to make sure potential problems (or dangers) were circumvented.
In order to save time, MacKay-Lyons and Broughton had already installed foundation piles for the two Ghost 10 buildings—their footprints suggesting parallel rectangular forms with the short ends extending from the ridge on the east to the LeHave estuary on the west. Naturally one might wonder why the long elevations weren’t facing down the hill toward the southerly ocean for the storied views: but MacKay-Lyons contends that the interrelationship between the two parts of the house was better ensured by having their long, opposing north and south elevations engage each other over the grassy “courtyard” space. At the same time, the upper (living ) house, because of its high perch (the drop in grade between the upper and lower houses is 85 feet), would command a panorama of the coastline. Because the lower house was designated for sleeping and therefore used mainly at night, its elevations were designed to be more enclosed with a view directed up to the sky.
The importance and meaning of the views allowed each structure to receive a fair amount of attention during the design sessions. In the everyday world, conditioned by real estate values (and popular demand), a discussion regarding the supremacy of the role of the water view would be considered slightly unnecessary. But here, in a place where such views were pervasive, a questioning of assumptions by a group of architects seemed understandable. Nevertheless it is interesting to note that the debate about the need for controlled or framed views remained salient through construction, and would lead to a design change at the very end.
Naturally the conceptual nature of the program generated debate: for example, the idea that a house would be pulled apart and separated by a 1000 feet, all the while embodying the possibility that its two sections could be joined at some point on a different site, was intriguing. Discussions during the design process centered on how to relate the various living and sleeping functions on the site. Should it be strictly a conceptual exercise or not? As MacKay-Lyons observed, “A house is not just land-art.” But Berke argued that Donald Judd’s compound at Marfa, Texas, could be described as land art, yet still proved to be quite livable and memorable.
Berke pointed out that the Ghost 10 project should explore the “reductive condition” of the house; an investigation “reducing it to its primal quality,” where only basic living patterns define the design of its elements. Although plumbing (or for that matter, insulation and finishes) were not part of the agenda, functional considerations were debated extensively. Interestingly, some of the practitioners, such as Jonathan Boelkins, an architect with Marlon Blackwell, were not too concerned about function being a strong determinant in this exercise. “ The students should not get too hung up on function and program,” Boelkins argued, “This is their one chance not to be consumed by those things you have to think about later.”
The separation of the two kindred rectilinear structures into public spaces for living and dining in one structure and private spaces for sleeping in the other led to the placement of the kitchen along the north wall of the upper structure. The lower house, with its bedroom and internal atrium, proved to be more problematic in locating a spacious bathroom within its confines. As a result, the bathroom got squeezed to a half-bath with a shower placed in the atrium—which was fine until the idea of making the atrium into a rock garden took hold.
The two pavilions’ dimensions, 38 feet long and 14 feet wide ( each about 500 square feet) created efficient spaces that could be erected in the time frame. Since materials had been ordered in advance, with little margin for error, the structure needed to be fairly basic: the teams installed two main timber beams under each cabin, then 2-inch by 10-inch floor joists, and over that laid a 1-inch by 6 inch tongue-and-groove pine floor boards. They framed the side walls in 2-inch by 4-inch rough sawn studs, over which they nailed smoothly planed spf (spruce, pine, fir) or hemlock tongue-and-groove planks. The upper house needed tie rods threaded through foundation posts to resist lateral wind loads, a requirement that did not pertain to the lower house, since its sheathed walls provided more stability.
But even if the lower house was able to get by with simpler wood framing, ironically it took more effort to build. Part of the reason owed to the decision to miter the joints at the corners, which called for carefully beveling the edges of two planks of wood so they would meet cleanly on a 90-degree angle. The desire for a mitered joint resulted from the discussion of the nature of lower house in terms of its placement: since it sat at the intersection of the main road and the drive that leads to the upper house, it would function as a marker. Both MacKay-Lyons and Berke felt it should guarantee privacy, as well as act as a gatehouse, therefore necessitating a solid wall along the road. As an enclosed sleeping space, the lower house needed to be monolithic, rather like a “boulder,” as MacKay-Lyons put it. In order to give it some refinement, Boelkins suggested the mitering. He pointed out the complexity of the construction task (which included staying a step ahead of those setting the siding, so that dimensions could be adjusted if the thickness of the planks varied). The team decided it was worth it.
The crafted look of the lower house proved seductive. But it did mean that MacLean needed to bring part of the crew from the upper house down to the lower one to get the job done on time.
Another addition to the lower house involved a window. In spite of the decision that a house for sleeping only needed a view of the stars above, at the last minute, a discussion began about the advantages of an ocean view. A window 22 inches by 4 feet was marked out in the short end of the house facing west to the water. But in the heat of the moment, the matter was forgotten until the house was almost finished and someone noticed the window had not been cut. MacLean lept to the task with a chain saw, while all the workers gulped at the possibility that such a crude device would only leave a jagged hole in the crafted artifact. Fortunately the builder showed he was deft with the saw and the window was perfect.
After only one week of construction, surprisingly two well crafted houses resulted, one exquisitely so. While the upper house with its expansive views of the water to the west and south was handsome and pleasant to be in, the other house for sleeping caught everyone off guard. Owing to its rock garden (the rocks were imported from the beach), its inward focus and the view of the sky, the structure achieved a level of poetry that was unexpected. It was also ironic. Here in this stunning setting, the house that shuts out the view (for the most part) and turns in on itself, ends up being the architectural work that most thrills a visitor entering and walking through its confines.
Now there is talk of moving the houses to a permanent site nearby, placing them to adjoin each other, and finishing and fitting them out as one entity. Meanwhile, the Ghost students have gone on their way, having had a quick, but intense lesson in designing, building and immersing themselves in the land and its lore.