Upper Kingsburg, Nova Scotia

The place seems to be at the edge of the world, where an expansive sky, shimmering water, and a hilly landscape dotted with spruce and pines are only interrupted by rustic cottages and barns. It is here that Brian MacKay-Lyons, whose firm, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has renovated or designed a cluster of buildings. The architect started buying property some years ago in Upper Kingsburg on the southeastern coast of the province. Known for its hilly, glacial land formations (called drumlins) with panoptic views of the Atlantic Ocean, this peninsula held a primordial attraction for MacKay- Lyons: His French-Acadian forebears had settled there after Champlain’s arrival in 1604.

Shobac Cottages and Studio

In 1994, MacKay-Lyons established a camp on the property where architecture students (mostly from Canada and the U.S.) and a few architects and critics would meet two weeks each year for a design-build workshop. The idea was to connect contemporary architectural practice to timeless construction techniques, materials, and vernacular forms. It was soon dubbed Ghost Lab, partly inspired by the eerie look of the new structures at night, and partly by the presence of ruins and other traces of earlier communities nearby.

The first series of design-build enclosures were temporary. But others, including four cabins and a studio, were envisioned as permanent structures. The four cabins provide sleeping accommodations for the design-build students for two weeks each summer, then are rented out the rest of the season. The studio, a barnlike structure that serves as a work space and meeting house for the workshop, is used the rest of the time by Brian MacKay-Lyons and his wife, Marilyn, as a summer office and living space.

Both cabins and studio were designed and (largely) constructed in two different Ghost Lab sessions—the cabins in July 2005 and the studio, the following year. Since the lab runs for a short term, with the first week devoted to design and the second to construction, only certain stages in each project could be brought to completion by the students—many of them novices at building. (Fortunately, practicing architects and builder Gordon MacLean were on hand to guide them.) Both projects were finished during the remainder of the year by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple working with MacLean.

The cabins, positioned on a 12-foot grid, are 14 feet wide, with 10-foot-wide spaces separating the pavilions. Inserted into the high, narrow end of each wedge-shaped shed is a two-level block containing kitchen, bedroom, and bath on the ground floor, with a bedroom loft above. Living and dining areas open out to east-facing decks and views of the Atlantic Ocean. Exterior sheathing is white-cedar shingles for the long sides of the cabin, with 1-by-4, tongue-and-groove vertical boards—a mixture of two-thirds hemlock and one-third spruce, pine, and fir (called SPF)—for the protruding bedroom blocks. The architects used rough-sawn lumber with the same mix of wood for the stud walls, bolstering them with prefabricated built-up wood trusses, 12 feet on center.

The studio employs similar rough-sawn local timber for a post-and-beam structure, although exterior cladding is corrugated steel sheet. Angled steel struts and beams span the space and give the upper portion of the hall a strong tectonic quality. The 100-foot-long studio is designed so that residents can work or dine at centrally placed refectorylike tables, with a bathroom, kitchen, and fireplace arranged along the south perimeter wall. At the east end are sleeping and sitting nooks, with more sleeping accommodations contained in the mezzanine that wraps around the east and south sides of the structure overlooking the main room.

In Ghost, Building an Architectural Vision (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), which details the efforts of the first nine sessions of the design-build labs, MacKay-Lyons calls the entire compound an “idealized protourban court.” The cabins and the studio partially enclose two sides of a grassy turf that gently slopes to a ledge over the sea. The manner in which the cabins, the studio, and a new horse barn, plus an earlier nonfunctional “tower,” sit on the clearing furnishes the lab participants with a strong sense of community. Juhani Pallasmaa, as guest critic for the Ghost 7, noted in Ghost that the settlement represents the “primordial encounter of land and water, air and fire.” But the encounter with the sky, especially on a starry night, deepens and strengthens that awe-inspiring, yet strangely intimate communion.