Brian MacKay-Lyons on Designers' Integrity and the Foundation of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple

Design:ED Podcast is an inside look into the field of architecture told from the perspective of individuals that are leading the industry. This motivational series grants unique insight into the making of a successful design career, from humble beginnings to worldwide recognition. Every week, featured guests share their personal highs and lows on their journey to success, that is sure to inspire audiences at all levels of the industry. Listening to their stories will provide a rare blueprint for anyone seeking to advance their career, and elevate their work to the next level.

In this episode, Brian MacKay-Lyons discusses the importance of maintaining your integrity as a designer, the lessons he learned from working closely with Charles Moore, and how he began his own firm MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple in Nova Scotia.

Brian MacKay-Lyons is the founding Partner of the award-winning firm MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After studying at the Technical University in Nova Scotia and UCLA, Brian went to work for Charles Moore, Barton Myers, and Giancarlo De Carlo prior to founding his firm in 1983. Among the hundreds of awards that the firm has received, Brian was awarded the RAIC Gold Medal, Canada’s highest honor for lifetime achievement in architecture. He was named an Honorary (International) Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (Hon.FAIA), as well as, an International Fellow from the Royal Institute of British Architects (Int. FRIBA).  

This episode is available via iTunes, Spotify, and iHeart Radio.


What is it about vernacular design that draws you to making buildings in the style that you have become known for? (2:56)

“I know Ted Flato was on and talked about place, as an idea, as a way of thinking and working. I’d say vernacular is not a style at all. It’s what you look at if you want to see sustainable building traditions because I would say the only reliable models for sustainable building are vernacular building traditions. In other words, sustainable is what you do when you can’t afford to get it wrong… I’ve always flip flopped, you go to the mountain, and you go out the back alley to the world. And you know that the back alleys are very fruitful… I would say all culture derives from the poor, so that’s why I’m interested in this ground up view of culture. For me, vernacular has so much to do with environmental sustainability. If you’re a North American you have this democratic baggage, we all do. The idea that the ‘good generic’ is important, like Henry Ford or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses. They are really modeled on creating a vernacular that people could afford, that was accessible… There is a book that all fine artists have called Ways of Seeing by John Berger, it’s really about training yourself to see. Corb talked about the eyes that do not see. It’s a sensibility, it’s a toolbox. This idea that it is a provincial way of looking at things is not necessarily the case…”

Can you talk about how craft plays a role in the architecture of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple? (10:04)

“We are getting to do some houses with larger budgets nowadays, but they aren’t obscene, and they don’t fetishize craft… If you’re a teacher you feel like telling some students while they are presenting. Don’t be better at talking than doing. I would say don’t be better at crafting than conceiving. I’ve always thought that the concept of a building, which is usually made of air, nothing very expensive, air and light is what mattered to me. I figured after awhile I would learn to build well. I’m with Glenn Murcutt, who is a friend and mentor for many decades, and he says his buildings are semi-tailored garments that eighty percent of the design or craft comes from the material culture, and he just does the last twenty percent. So, I always think it’s funny when people say our buildings are well crafted. They are, but they aren’t in that sense. If you grew up in a place like Nova Scotia where there is amazing carpentry because of hundreds of years of ships carpenters, your details are going to be pretty good, but it is not like you had to invent them all. I think this thing about fetishization of craft or of making, capital ‘M’, is kind of what you do when you don’t have an idea…”

You studied at the Technical University of Nova Scotia before going to grad school at UCLA, can you take us through what that experience was for you? (12:10)

“Basically, when I got to school, I was a hick from a little village. And at that time, I had a lot of failed European architects as professors. They met me at the door, so to speak, and said ‘You have no business here. You’re a hick, and where you come from has nothing to do with architecture. You don’t dress right; you don’t talk right.’ So, anger does have its purpose… I became interested in where I came from, out of that anger. You know the famous Nikolaus Pevsner quote. There is no connection between the basilica and the bicycle shed. The basilica is architecture and the bicycle shed is mere building. I said, ok, I could give my finger to Pevsner for a few decades and see how that works… I was going to quit architecture because of the teaching that I experienced, and then I had two or three really great teachers that said, no you should stick with it…”

When you decide to go out on your own to start your firm and step away from the guaranteed paycheck. What were those early days like starting your firm? (20:30)

“They were pretty hungry, but the problem there is that you are what you eat. A friend of mine once told me that crows never go hungry. There is a lot of food at the dump. Eagles don’t have much to eat, so there is a price to pay and not everyone is willing to pay it. I talk to my students in their first year… I say that it’s going to be hard to hang on to your integrity. You’ll see at least a third of the eyes go to the floor. Even in first year architecture, whether they realize it or not, they are saying, ‘I’m not up for this. This is too hard for me.’ I don’t believe in the starving artist model but I believe in finding a way to hang on to your integrity and your values. There can be some hungry years there. The natives say that March is like hungry month, you know, like you’re close to starvation every year. If you do what you believe is right then people will find you, and they will hire you to do what you want to do. There is some justice in it…”

A young designer has options of different types of firms that they could go to. What do you think is the future of architecture and the role these types of firms play? (25:55)

“I worry about it because we teach in architecture school as if everyone is going to be the author of projects, and of course we know architecture is a team sport, just for starters. Very few people play that role as the napkin sketch leader, and there aren’t that many positions in practice for that or there aren’t very many great practices to work in. There is a coarsening of the grain. Large firms are buying up small firms, and using the portfolio of the small firms to pretend to be innovators so they can beat out small firms based on work that they didn’t even do themselves. It is a very dim view one could take. I’ve always been ok being outside the centers of fashion and outside of the trends. Just do some small thing that you can control. Plant a garden. Do what you can do with integrity, and maybe the world will find you. We had a lot of firms wanting to buy our firm a few years back. My three children came to me. See, I thought I was doing it for money so that they could have something one day, and they all came to me. They said, we don’t want your money. The only legacy we want is your reputation intact…”

What advice would you have for someone that wants to have a career like the one you’ve had? (33:05)

“I think it is easier to be noticed if you’re not in New York or LA or Berlin. For the work to be well regarded outside of where you live. It has to have essential qualities that are timeless and cross-cultural; archetypal qualities that everyone can understand regardless of where they are coming from. That kind of search for the sublime or for the essential or that kind of autonomous aspects of architecture which belong to the discipline is always what I’ve kept my eye on. It sounds inconsistent with regionalism to say what I’m most interested in are things that are classic and cross-cultural but that would be the case… I think the reason the work is acknowledged around the world by architects, universally almost, is because of those things… Work has to aspire to more than the local…”

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Cite: Design:ED. "Brian MacKay-Lyons on Designers' Integrity and the Foundation of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple" 27 Jul 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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