Spirits in the Material World

A design-build workshop in Nova Scotia reconnects students and practicing architects with the past.

On a quiet stretch of Nova Scotia coastline, where the Atlantic Ocean laps at a rocky shore, a cluster of wooden structures stands guard over grassy hills and forests. The property belongs to Canadian architect Brian MacKay-Lyons, and the lonely monuments that dot its waterfront are “Ghosts”—the results of his annual design-build workshop, called Ghost Lab. “It’s actually where the explorer Samuel de Champlain first landed in Canada,” MacKay-Lyons says, noting that ruins on the site go back 400 years. “It’s full of ghosts from people who used to live there.”

Steeped in regional culture and history, Ghost Lab is a two-week summer apprenticeship for both students and practicing architects that draws lessons from the area’s building and manufacturing traditions. Working from an initial sketch by MacKay-Lyons, participants spend the first week designing a structure while exploring the landscape and visiting local sites such as shipyards and foundries. During the second week they haul lumber and pound nails to give life to their drawings. This year’s project re-creates a village square oriented around installations from previous workshops and illustrates a single design at various stages of construction through four separate structures: a bare foundation, a ground floor with a deck, a building covered with a roof, and a fully finished and enclosed space.

MacKay-Lyons originally imagined Ghost Lab as a way of getting his students at Dalhousie University out of the classroom and giving them hands-on building experience. He has since opened it up to an international group of about 25 participants each year, as well as guest architects and artists who bring different ideas to the table. “It really stresses issues that are difficult to teach in school or that are maybe not being taught well in schools of architecture these days,” he says. Those issues, he suggests, are related to landscape, material culture, and community.

In addition to a lesson in regional architecture, the lab serves as a vivid reminder of the relationship between design and construction that is often forgotten in today’s digital studios. “The two weeks was a totally intense experience unlike anything I had done before,” says Sam Olshin, a principal at Philadelphia’s Atkin Olshin Lawson-Bell Architects who was one of this year’s participants. “I teach, and what happens pretty early on in school is a disconnect between design and building. This was a chance to reestablish the time-honored tradition of putting them together.”

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