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

Brian MacKay-Lyons 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 Virginia 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?

Brian MacKay-Lyons: Yeah, for sure! And, it would still be a fair criticism of both, because I think both have a role in the education of architects. I felt like - and still feel like - the schools get flakier and flakier, and the practices become more and more philistine. Practice is becoming more and more dominated by a corporate globalized culture, and the small firms are getting eaten up.

Practices have not been doing as good a job as they used to at the apprenticeship part of education. I think large corporate practice views young people as mobile capital, human capital. The idea that you take someone under your wing as an apprentice, the way Louis Sullivan took Frank Lloyd Wright, is not as strong as it used to be.

So I don’t just blame the schools anymore. I started out being pretty clear that I thought the schools were getting flaky. You know how it goes, the university culture forces people to get PhDs. So they get a PhD and they are 45 years old and they have never seen a 2x4. And the last thing they want the students to think or understand is that they don’t know what a 2x4 is. So they have to call it some flaky name and hope that they never get found out. 

Then those same faculty members choose the new faculty members in the school and the balance is tipped towards schools without practitioners, or schools where there is nothing behind the curtain, like in "The Wizard of Oz". 

Keith: So what do you think the education and the architect ought to look like? 

Brian: Well, what I don’t think it needs to look like is an all design/build curriculum. I guess I have also learned that it has its limitations, like everything. One reason that Ghost has taken this hiatus is because I realized that I was being insincere.

I believe an architect's role is not to be the builder. The architect's role - like a conductor’s role in an orchestra - is not to be the first violinist either. I learned at Ghost that because I'm not a builder, I would volunteer for really dumb jobs on the site like driving spikes or carrying lumber. It was only when I was doing something not very challenging craft wise that I had the distance from the coal face that I think an architect needs to have to be the architect. I also learned in practice that contractors aren't happier if you start to act like a builder and start telling them where to pile the lumber or how to do things. I found that what works best in the construction industry is when the builder asks you a question, to say you don’t know the answer. And then the builder can be the builder and their experience is then something you can learn from. 

I think both in practice and education, the architect is like Chancy Gardner in the movie "Being There", when he said "I like to watch". I think that is what architects do, they watch. So I think there is a romance around design/build that is a little bit misleading. However, I also think that it is really essential. Like in "The Fountainhead", it’s essential to have the experience of building in your education or in your practice. Rick Joy built the first six houses he did, but that was it.

The reason to have had the Ghost Lab is for architects to learn humility, so that they don’t become the asshole architects on the site telling the builders what to do and not respecting them.

There are countless stories at Ghost. My favorite stories are when the architects and the people with PhDs and the engineers had it all wrong and some guy who didn’t even go to high school just makes them look really dumb. <all laugh> It is a wonderful experience.

So really Ghost was about humility. Realizing that builders are really smart in a different kind of way than us and that we would do well to listen. 


Marie Zawistowski: You've written about the impact of Team 10 on your own intellectual development as an architect. You are also very close friends with architects such as Rick Joy, Marlon Blackwell, Tom Kundig, and Wendell Burnette. You guys visit each other's work, travel together and even look in on each other's families. Do you consider yourselves a school of thought - a movement in architectural history?

Brian: [...] You know, there's this book coming out called "Local Architecture", which is Princeton Architectural Press' idea of how to take all of that and make a name for it that sells books. <all laugh> It's really called "building place, craft and community". I think all of us think that there is a curriculum there.

Rick [Joy] asked: “What is a curriculum for architecture today? What would it look like?” My temperament toward the timeless side of things and the fundamentals would be to say that they are 3 courses in the school of architecture: one is about place, one is about craft and one is about community. You only need three courses; it could be the best school in the world…

So the name of that book is really an idea about a curriculum. [...] Because in that conference that we had in our barn a couple of years ago, education, again, was the elephant in the room. Nobody was talking about it, while everybody was talking about it. Because we're all teachers, right? Ask me the question again, I had an answer. 

Keith: Do you guys consider yourselves a school of thought? Are you a movement, the way that Team 10 was?

Brian: I don't know, maybe a little bit… I know that sounds very egotistical and that is why I didn’t just come out and say it.

Marie: But I said it.

Brian: Yeah, there you go! I forgot it, conveniently. Yes about education; yes about education, would be the answer. Peter Buchanan calls this group of people, which includes many others, "The Resistance". And maybe we will have an exhibition that will go around after the book comes out and Peter will be the curator, and we will call the exhibition "Resistance", just the idea of resistance. A resistance to the unwholesome break between the academy and practice, between the head and the hand, we're a school about that. We agree on that. The idea about where you find your lessons, to be environmentally sustainable, we probably agree on all of that.

Mostly I think, to take Kenneth Frampton's position, the value of "Critical Regionalism" is in its resistance to the numbing effects of globalization, cultural globalization, which includes architecture and everything else. That's a school, yeah for sure, that's a school! We think of regionalism - and I hate the word, just like I hate the word sustainability, but we need a word. When you hear the word regionalism, people think conservative, parochial, provincial... and what I like about the other, the view that we hold as a group, is this idea of resistance.

It's a critical position; it's a radical position. It's like saying I don’t get it; I'm not buying it. I think it is a radical position, this position of "resistance", so maybe there is a school there...

You can read the complete interview, here on inform. Brian MacKay-Lyons will be delivering a keynote at the Architecture Exchange East (ArchEX) in Richmond, Virginia on November 6th. You can find more information and register here.

Masonic Amphitheatre Project / design/buildLAB at Virginia Tech. Image © Jeff Goldberg/ESTO

Keith Zawistowski was born in New Jersey, USA and studied architecture at Virginia Tech. Marie Zawistowski was born in Paris, France and studied architecture at the Ecole d’Architecture Paris Malaquais. They met at Auburn University’s Rural Studio while working as students with Architect Sambo Mockbee to design and build a charity house for Lucy Harris and her family. They later traveled together to study traditional building practices in Ghana, West Africa and have since married, established OnSite Architecture and joined the faculty at Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture + Design, where they co-founded and co-direct the design/buildLAB.

Keith and Marie strive to make buildings, which are deeply rooted in the unique identity of people and place and which are economically, culturally, and environmentally sensitive. Their practice and their teaching have each been recognized with numerous regional, national and international awards, publications and exhibitions. 

About this author
Cite: Karissa Rosenfield. "Interview: Brian MacKay-Lyons on the State of Architectural Education and the Architect's Role" 22 Oct 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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