Cliff-hanger house nails top prize

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Cliff-hanger house nails top prize

| architects, architecture, architecture critic | May 17, 2012

Cliff House, Halifax architect Brian MacKay-Lyons’ creation, has won his firm its sixth Governor General’s medal. Since Christmas, the firm has won 14 national and international design awards.

A modest wooden house soaring over a rocky cliff has earned Nova Scotia architect Brian MacKay-Lyons a 2012 Governor General’s Medal in Architecture.

“We’re still the only architects in Atlantic Canada who’ve ever won it since it started in the 1950s so it’s kind of special for sure,” says MacKay-Lyons.

This is the sixth Governor General’s medal that MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects of Halifax and Lunenberg has been awarded by the Canada Council through a peer jury process.

“Your peers are the toughest audience, in that sense it means a lot,” he says, on the phone from Lunenburg.

“If you’re a musician, you want Bruce Springsteen to say you’re good.”

Since Christmas, the firm has won 14 national and international design awards and seen the opening of the Canadian embassy it designed in Bangladesh.

MacKay-Lyons and his family are off to Washington, D.C., this week to pick up the American Institute of Architects Honor Award for the Shobac Campus, a collection of buildings in Upper Kingsburg, Lunenburg County, that serve as a home and satellite office.

Still it frustrates MacKay-Lyons that after 35 years of working in Nova Scotia his company is not designing more public buildings in Atlantic Canada.

“We have this big international reputation and we can’t get any work at home,” says MacKay-Lyons, a Dalhousie University architecture professor for more than 20 years.

“Things are very political here, very parochial. Unless you’re well connected you don’t get a chance.”

The Governor General’s Award was presented for his work on Cliff House. Perched somewhere on the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, it is a timber-frame minimalist box that juts out from a cliff on stilts anchored by heavy concrete onto the rock below. Its form is inspired by the fishing shacks in Blue Rocks and Peggys Cove, says MacKay-Lyons.

The house has a row of front windows looking out to sea.

“You get a sense of vertigo when you’re standing in it. When you get to the front you are, ‘Oh, my God, I could go flying.’”

However, it’s very safe. “It’s not going anywhere.”

MacKay-Lyons describes Cliff House as “monumentally modest.”

“The way it is in the landscape, it’s very proud and forceful and yet it’s just a simple building. It’s modest and inexpensive.”

It has a light timber frame construction, the type of two-by-four construction that is typical of the way houses are built in North America.

“Small timber is the only renewable building material other than bamboo. Even concrete uses tremendous energy.”

Cliff House has also won a North American Wood Design Honor Award, which pleases MacKay-Lyons because “it’s hard to get architects to appreciate light timber frame,” he says. They prefer “sexier” wooden buildings with large timbers and beams.

“The idea of touching the land lightly is something we’re becoming more and more interested in, disturbing the land the least.

“The buildings tend to be more hovering above the land, kind of cantilevering.”

In their statement, jurors praised Cliff House saying, “Perfectly judged for its setting, it elevates plain vernacular form and ordinary materials into a potent meditation on the relationship between the manmade and nature.”

Architecture is a team sport, says MacKay-Lyons. For Cliff House, he relied on project architect Kevin Reid, who’s worked for the firm for seven years, builder Gordon MacLean and structural engineer Michel Comeau of Campbell Comeau Engineering Ltd.

MacKay-Lyons has worked for 30 years with both MacLean and Comeau. He and Comeau grew up together in Arcadia near Yarmouth.

MacKay-Lyons and his Newfoundland-born partner Talbot Sweetapple are leading proponents internationally of regionalist architecture.

Wherever they build they look to the local material culture.

In this region, their design language is “influenced by the rural industrial building tradition in the Maritimes.”

“When we build in Bangladesh, we build it all of bricks. That’s using the culture.

“Our work is about that, about the idea of regionalism, about the idea of place and looking at the local material culture wherever we are.”


About the author

Drawing upon original ideas and extensive personal and professional experience in the field, David McFadden crafted this article to explore the untapped potential of making historic architectural masterpieces more sustainable. After working at various design practices—both full-time and freelance—and launching his design firm, David identified a significant gap in the industry. In 1984, he founded Consulting For Architects Inc. Careers, an expansive hub designed to align architects with hiring firms for mutual benefit. This platform enables architects to find impactful design work and frees hiring firms from the time-consuming cycles of recruitment and layoffs. David’s innovative approach to employer-employee relations has brought much-needed flexibility and adaptation to the industry. As the Founder and CEO, David has successfully guided his clients and staff through the challenges of four recessions—the early ’80s, early ’90s, early 2000s, the Great Recession, the pandemic, and the current slowdown due to inflation and high-interest rates.

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