Hammer time - Issue 16 - Magazine | Monocle

thumbnail text

For 10 summers since 1994, architects from across North America have been packing their suitcases, loading up their station wagons and jumping on planes to head for a remote corner of Canada’s Nova Scotia. They come here to do something that most architects never achieve in their lives: design and build a house. Not just sit at their desk and perhaps chase a few contractors but actually pick up a hammer and a saw and build every last inch of their creation.

The Ghost Laboratory architecture camp runs over two weeks – the first is spent designing, the second building (it takes its spectral name from the fact that, on the final night, the buildings are lit up so they appear like ghosts on the wild landscape and the locals come for a party to celebrate the ghosts of all the buildings, people and ideas that have lived here before). The head “Ghost” is local architect and Nova Scotia native Brian MacKay-Lyons who started the summer camp so that students and architects can “practise” architecture in its pure form – with no clients, budgets or practical constraints.

Architecture students rarely get this opportunity to build. In North America, only a few universities offer a practical construction element. University of Texas at Austin graduate Catherine Muller tells me she came to Ghost because “everything in studio is abstract and virtual. I wanted to do hands-on work in real scale, in real time.” Amanda Glidewell, a student at Texas Tech University, came because “I never experienced that moment where my drawings turn into realised projects”.

A compact, former competitive athlete, MacKay-Lyons is modest with a down-to-earth intelligence that mimics his building style. He is sociable, loves animals and red wine, is close to his family, and blasts music at full volume in his car and references Lou Reed, Cream, Eric Clapton and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin in his lectures. If he has any regrets in his life, one imagines it’s only that he never became a rock star.

A third of the annual intake of 30 Ghost students is selected by MacKay-Lyons, who bases his decision on the strength of applicants’ portfolios and letters of intent. A handful of universities in North America – including Maryland, Arizona, University of Toronto, Texas Tech, Calgary and North Carolina – offer Ghost scholarships to their top students. And regional architects (those who use the landscape, local building traditions, materials and the climate to determine aspects of their building design), such as Rick Joy, Marlon Blackwell and David Miller, send an architect from their offices. Others, such as Philippe Mizutani from Montréal, find a way to pay the $4,000 (€2,500) tuition fees themselves: “I’ve wanted to come for a long time so I’ve been saving up.” Kirsty Bruce, a practising architect in Toronto, applied every year of her Masters programme at Halifax’s Dalhousie University. This is the first year she has been accepted.

Each year the Ghost project focuses on one conceptual architectural question. In the lab’s third year, Ghost 3, students studied how wind can spiral through a tubular building and then built a wind tunnel from recycled timber. The layout of Ghost 7, now the Ghost dormitories, was based on the symmetry and spacing of a row of fishing shacks at the Blue Rocks fishing docks in nearby Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ghost 10 is to test – to the extreme – an idea that MacKay-Lyons has been playing with for a long time: how two tiny buildings placed 300m apart can make a big landscape gesture.

By the time Monocle reaches Nova Scotia, after a 15-hour drive from New York, the relentless beauty of the countryside is almost too much to take in: giant rounded cow barns, wharves and bait sheds, fishing boats in tranquil bays, piles of artistically stacked lobster pots and rows of brightly coloured Adirondack chairs facing the sea. During the final miles, mobile phone reception and all signs of life disappear.

The last hill to Upper Kingsburg takes you down a deep valley past a field of cows to a right turn at a large grey wooden barn, then up a winding gravel road to dramatic views of the raw and wild Atlantic Ocean. The shore is peppered with the weathered, grey-shingled buildings of past Ghosts: there is the cathedral-like tower of Ghost 6, the four wedge-shaped dormitory buildings of Ghost 7, a larger wedged studio building, Ghost 8, and the three-sided wooden barn where four horses roll in the tall grass nearby.

Over the years, MacKay-Lyons and his wife Marilyn have accumulated 20 hectares of oceanfront property, which has become the Ghost Lab campus. After living in LA, Siena and Kyoto, MacKay-Lyons returned to Nova Scotia and began to delve further into the region’s history. He studied the craftsmanship of local shipbuilders and was inspired by the south-facing placement of buildings in his own barnyard. He inspected the materials used to build fishing shacks and wharves and how they withstood the extreme climate and then used these same materials and influences in his modern houses. His firm, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, has been gaining recognition internationally for making reasonably priced, simple but complex modernist buildings that blend with the local landscape.

On the first day of camp, the team crams around the long table in the Ghost 7 studio building: MacKay-Lyons and guest architect Deborah Berke, journalist Suzanne Stephens of Architectural Record, Professor Karl Du Puy from University of Maryland, MLS project architect and official camp counsellor Peter Broughton, 30 “Ghosties” and MacKay-Lyons’s two Leonberger dogs Naala and Mopti. Armed with laptops, drawing pads and cutting tools, the group is split in two and each half is instructed to design one of two separate houses that could one day be moved together to complete each other. The uphill house will be for living (“Make sure there’s enough room for the dinner party,” instructs MacKay-Lyons.). The lower house will be just for sleeping. The houses will be small – only 46 sq m each; 4m wide and 11.5m long.

Once briefed, the students have almost instant 3-D drawings of the buildings up on their computers. Using 2- and 3-D visualisation program SketchUp and AutoCad, they can input the size of the timber we’ll be using and graphically build the structure while calculating the amount of materials we will need as well.

As the designing begins, Deborah Berke helps determine the main issues to focus on. “How reductive can both buildings be but still function?” For the upper building, the design issues revolve around the hill’s elevation and how it complicates the building process. The lower/sleeping house team has two hotshot architects – Dale Rush from Rick Joy studio in Arizona and Jonathan Boelkins from Marlon Blackwell in Arkansas. That team’s big idea with a 46 sq m sleeping house is to give the house no view and no bathroom and turn the space that would’ve been the bathroom into a meditative space. Talk about reductive. Deborah Berke jokes, “I think we have some hygiene-resistant people in this group!”

MacKay-Lyons is encouraged by the fact that both groups think you could design a building that overlooks the sea on two sides yet still consider blocking the views. “It’s quite mature thinking,” he says. Then he and Berke argue for and against this idea. He says, “If intellectual means being insensitive to the views, then we need to make adjustments.” Berke responds, “But you also don’t want us to come up with something that denies the essential qualities of the site.”

As the only non-architect in the room, the impracticality of their ideas is as compelling as it is horrifying. Is it so unrefined to want to look at the sea from your bed when you wake up? Their argument is that the building should guide you to the view so that you appreciate it. I can’t help thinking this is the architect’s version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. But everyone seems to agree on the viewless house – with no bathroom.

Both groups have the designs ready for the important midweek meeting with Gordon MacLean, the builder, and structural engineer Michel Comeau. The level of building challenges that they resolve with the students is highly technical, and involves issues of lateral loads (forces of wind on the side of the building) and material strength. After this dose of reality, the students work for two more days and nights to get the plans perfect for construction, which will start on Saturday at 8am.

The first day of construction involves a hammering tutorial from MacLean who is not in the least bit annoyed in teaching novices how to hammer a nail. At least 20 of the 30 Ghosties have no construction experience. MacLean, who has worked with MacKay-Lyons since 1987 says, “Brian sees the construction as teaching students a more integrated understanding of craft. I see it as learning basic skills that they can feel good about and then say, ‘I can do my deck next week!’ Anyone can go to school, but the opportunity to build stuff is rare.”

That day, I organise all the wood into neat piles at the upper site (local spruce, pine and fir) and learn to lay a floor. By the end of the day, we have constructed the base of the buildings. Hammering nails is tough because the wood is hard. What is tougher though is that the upper site, 80m higher than the bottom one, has its own climate. We are shrouded in fog and mist all day and it is 10 degrees colder than the lower site, where they are working in shorts, and wearing sunscreen. Despite the miserable conditions, everyone enjoys the hard work. Berke says, “It’s because people feel good making things. Emptying your inbox just ain’t the same kind of satisfaction.”

By Wednesday, Gordon announces we’re half way. The sun comes out and the pace picks up. By now everyone has construction tans and can finally swing a hammer. The upper team still has to side their house. The lower house, where I have been helping nail tongue-and-groove cladding, is ahead but some intricate detailing – a mitred corner – is slowing them down. Also slowing things down is the meditation room, which will be open to the sky and is now going to become a rock garden. Several times a day, a grinning MacKay-Lyons (he is never happier than on his tractor) drives to the beach (carrying students in the digger to even out the weight) to bring back piles of giant smooth rocks.

On the penultimate day MacKay-Lyons decides the house needs a view. He takes a vote. Who wants a view? Most hands go up. A view? After all his talk about “maturity”? He laughs and says, “There’s minimalism. Then there’s humanism!” He takes out a napkin from his pocket and starts sketching where the window will go.

At 4pm on Friday, hammering is at an all-time frenzy. The cladding is almost up and the last of the beach rocks is being piled in the rock garden. The architects and students are still measuring where the window needs to go but Gordon has had enough. He starts the chainsaw and, like a crazed murderer, walks to the building and starts cutting the hole for the window. The architects are horrified, and screaming for him to stop. But he cuts a perfect hole, exactly where it needs to go.

But the real clinching “Aha” moment of the camp is seeing the buildings finished and lit for the annual final party. To see them exactly as they were drawn on the first day – and filled with people – is to understand the point of Ghost.

The upper house lit from inside appears to be flying off the landscape. From outside, it looks like an art gallery in the Hollywood Hills where you only see the shadows of the figures inside. That night Bradford Payne, a recent Masters graduate student from North Carolina who worked on the upper house, stands in the crowded room, sawdust floating in the air. “I’m so proud to see people appreciate the building. People think architects are in it to make an object. It’s not true. It’s more about the way people react to it. It’s very human. Practising architecture is for people. It’s the most giving profession you can be part of.”

It’s the bottom house that supplies the biggest surprise. From the outside it glows like a Japanese lantern. Guests crowd on to the roof deck and look at the sky. But the oohing and aahing is reserved for one feature: the rock garden. It is magnificent. Who would think that a functionless space taking up valuable square metreage would be the most interesting and beautiful element of either house? Suzanne Stephens sums it up: “Wow. A room like this would cost $100,000 in New York.”

Ghostly fog

Sunny days are rare on the western Nova Scotia peninsula of Upper Kingsburg. Locals estimate they get 200 days of fog a year. Pre-Ghost emails warn of unpredictable weather, no guaranteed phone or internet service and suggest boots and many layers of warm clothing – even though it’s June and the lilacs are starting to bloom.

Tee time

Camp fashion was all about T-shirts. Most were branded with the student’s alma maters – “U of T”, “U of M”, “UNC”. Aaron Willette, Dale Rush, Shawna Grant, Doug Weibel and Bradford Payne all had vintage “DARE to keep kids off drugs” T-shirts. Arkansas architect Jonathan Boelkins had a vintage simple black tee with just “CASH” spelt out across the front. But it was a toss-up for who made the biggest fashion statement: Pam Shaw’s “Architecture Sucks” t-shirt (archinect.com) or Aaron Willette’s tattoo of Le Corbusier’s “Modular Man” drawing on his calf?


About a 15-minute drive from the Ghost campus is Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The town was established in 1753 as the first British Colonial settlement in Nova Scotia and the architecture – immaculately preserved –makes Lunenburg the picture-perfect waterfront town. Loaded with art galleries, restaurants and ice cream shops, the town is similar in style to Newport Rhode Island with tiny historic houses on tree-lined streets. With bright-red wharf buildings and a fishing pier that is still active, Lunenburg is often used for film locations. One venue not to miss is Anderson Montague, a photography gallery owned by Dutch landscape photographer Mariette Roodenburg, whose fantastic collection of photography books and artists is a great surprise to find here.

Share on:

X (formerly Twitter)




Go back: Contents


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Monocle Daily