Interview: Brian MacKay-Lyons on the State of Architectural Education and the Architect’s Role

Ghost 7 / MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects. Image © James Steeves

is the founding partner of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, a professor at Dalhousie University and the founder of Ghost Lab - the now legendary 2-week summer design/build program that took place on his family farm in Nova Scotia from 1994 to 2011. While relentlessly local, Brian’s work has been recognized internationally with more than 100 awards, 300 publications and 100 exhibitions. In 2012, the American Institute of Architects recognized the collective work and influence of Ghost with an Institute Honor Award for Architecture.

On August 22nd, 2014 Brian hopped off his tractor and wiped the diesel fuel off his hands to discuss architectural education with Keith and Marie Zawistowski, co-founders of the design/buildLAB at Tech and partners of OnSite Architecture. Here is an excerpt from their conversation, which was originally published on Inform:

Keith Zawistowski: Your contributions to the discipline of architecture have been both in practice and in education. In 1994, you founded Ghost, an international laboratory that influenced all generations of architects with its simplicity and this affirmation of timeless architectural values of place and craft. It was a pretty bold move and it seems for us like it was a direct reaction to your discontentment with academia and the way architects were being educated. Do you still feel that strongly about the state of architecture education and the profession?

We Need More ‘Building’ in Architecture School

Courtesy of Flickr user mr kris

“Architectural education is very abstract.” Virginia Tech professors and Rural Studio alumni Keith and sat down to talk about the importance of a hands-on experience, suggesting a fundamental restructuring of curriculums. With projects such as the Masonic Ampitheater, they — together with their students — set out to prove that somethings are simply solved by building. Read the full article here, “What Architecture Schools Get Wrong”.

VIDEO: design/buildLAB at Virginia Tech

An inspiring little video from the folks at that will make you want to get your designer hands dirty – today. The video follows the third-years of 2013 as they build their final project: a bridge. As the co-founder of the lab, Kieth Zawistowski, eloquently says at the video’s end, “It doesn’t really matter if you ever want to actually build something yourself again, what’s important, in this case, is that you’ve seen the entirety of the process, from conception to realization.” If you want to see more from design/buildLAB, check out the project completed by last year’s students (which features in the last few minutes of the video): Masonic Ampitheatre.

Post-Traumatic Design: How to Design Our Schools to Heal Past Wounds and Prevent Future Violence

Rendering for the New Utoya Project in Norway, which will re-design the Utøya Island where the 2011 massacre took place. Image courtesy of Fantastic Norway.

Over a month has passed since the tragedy. Its surviving students have gone back to school, albeit at another facility (decorated with old posters to make it feel familiar), and are working on putting this tragic event behind them. The nation is similarly moving on – but this time, with an eye to action. 

The goal is obvious: to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again. The means, less so. While President Obama’s recent gun control policy offers some solutions, it’s by no means the only way. Indeed, opinions vary – from clamping down on gun control, to better addressing the root cause of mental illness, to even arming teachers in the classroom.

The design world has similarly contributed to the debate. A recent article in ArchRecord questioned how, in the wake of Sandy Hook, we should design our schools: “While fortress-like buildings with thick concrete walls, windows with bars, and special security vestibules may be more defensible than what is currently in vogue, they are hardly the kind of places that are optimal for learning.”Indeed, turning a school into a prison would be the design equivalent of giving a teacher a rifle. You would, of course, have a more “secure” environment – but at what cost?

As America and the world considers how we can move on after these traumas, I’d like to take a moment to consider what role design could play. If the answer is not to turn our schools into prisons, then what is? Can design help address the root causes of and make our schools less vulnerable to tragedy? If so, how?

Masonic Amphitheatre Project / design/buildLAB at Virginia Tech

© Jeff Goldberg/ESTO

Architects: design/buildLAB at VA Tech of Architecture + Design
Location: Clifton Forge, Virginia 
Project Team: Tyler Atkins, Lauren Duda, Huy Duong, Derek Ellison, Megumi Ezure, Katherine Harpst, Kyle Lee, Leo Naegele, Margaret Nelson, Leah Schaffer, Ian Shelton, Brent Sikora, Emarie Skelton, Samantha Stephenson, Taylor Terrill, Samantha Yeh (All students of VA Tech). Along with Marie Zawistowski, Architecte DPLG (Professor of Practice); Keith Zawistowski, Assoc. AIA, GC (Professor of Practice).
Year: 2011 – 2012
Photographs: Jeff Goldberg/ESTO

Solar Decathlon: Lumenhaus / Virginia Tech

Courtesy of Tech

Virginia Tech garnered the first price for LUMENHAUS, their design of cutting edge responsive architecture. The 10-day inaugural Solar Decathlon Europe competition featured 17 inventive designs from around the world. The competition challenged the designs to “clearly demonstrate that solar houses can be built without sacrificing energy efficiency or comfort, and that they can be both attractive and affordable.”

Designed as a modern day pavilion and inspired by Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house, the LUMENHAUS successfully created open flowing spaces connecting occupants visually to their surrounding environment.  More photographs and a detailed description about LUMENHAUS following the break.