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Meet Brian Mackay-Lyons { 2011 AIATN Convention Speaker Series }

Memphis is an amazing array of speakers from across the street and around the world.
Meet Brian Mackay-Lyons, FRAIC, Hon. FAIA / MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects / Halifax, NS 
Speaking Friday, August 5, 1:30 - 3

In one sentence, how would you describe architecture to those outside the field?
Architecture is art which you can cause to happen, what you can build. (The public understands what architecture is, and they have entrusted architects to cultivate the environment, and in doing so, trusts that we are good at making beautiful things.)

Who or what most inspire your creative side? / How do you spark creativity?
The landscape is the principal inspiration. When you start a project, you read and see the landscape. Senses are bombarded and you absorb influences - where is the sun, the breezes, views, the protected places, sweet spots, the most energy? Every site is different, but the landscape is what brings you into the project and reading it is a discipline. You do this with the client, finding what’s different, exciting, original about the site. Building traditions also inspire.

Different cities have different problems or dynamics. What’s the best thing about designing in your city? This may be connected to your response to the second question.
Yes, it is connected to the second question. As you may know, our firm is a poster child for critical regionalism. I look at the landscape, material culture, climate as a way into architecture. It’s like one learns their manners at home. You learn what to do at home and in this case you learn from your region what to take out into the world with you as an adult.

We design infill projects in cities, and university campuses. What we look for in our city, we look for in all cities – urbanity and how to reinforce it through adding a building. We’re attracted to strong fabric, consistency, and density. It all starts at home knowing what is a good street or good town square. It’s not a fashionable approach although this fabric architecture contributes to good cities. Good fabric is the glue that holds the city together. In the book “The Fall of Public Man” by Richard Sennett he talks about the loss of urbanity as a serious problem. It leaves the city without a spirit. 

Although we do work in Halifax, we do more work in the village where I live, our second studio in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. We understand the sense of history and place and contribute to it. Our buildings are good neighbors. Many look like they have always been there. Our mission is to make buildings that are more silent. They do say a lot in that they are educational instruments but they don’t call attention to themselves.

What are you currently reading, whether it be books, magazines, or blogs?
I’m not as good at reading books, but with that said I have been picking up books from those I’ve seen speak. “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett an anthropologist. “
The Embodied Image: Imagination and Imagery in Architecture” by Juhani Pallasmaa. “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger. We have recently held the Ghost Conference at our farm in Upper Kingsburg, which has been described by others as the G20 for architects. Architectural Record wrote a nice article about the conference entitled “Plotting a New Course for Architecture.”

How do you balance work life and social/family life?
The word balance sounds like it is a question of compromise. It’s a bit of an unproductive discussion. A workaholic is someone who loves what they do, right? For that someone like me, I integrate work and life into one integrated picture. As we speak, I’m sitting next to my wife, Marilyn, as I work. We live in our studio. Artists have always done this and that’s how architects should think of themselves – as artists, living and creating in the same environment. We forget that. Sometimes clients come over to the studio for dinner. There’s no real dividing of community, practice, and teaching. It’s a unifying perspective that allows everything to be the same thing.

What other hobbies, interests do you have outside of Architecture?
Farming and sports of all kinds. When I take the tractor and mower out, I see it as if I’m making giant drawings on the land. Work is life.

Have you been to Memphis before? What are your current impressions?
Yes, once for the AIA Memphis a number of years ago. It’s the hot bed of music origins.. As a musician I see it as a place you’ve got to go to. I did not get to go to Graceland before but would love to go.  

What are some things you most look forward to in your trip to Memphis? In this response, can you be specific about what exact food you are looking forward to?

Ribs at Rendezvous, Beale Street, ducks in the Peabody Hotel fountain, Sun Records Studios.

What can we look forward to in your presentation at the AIA TN convention?

From the title Listening and Willing; it is about listening, seeing and receiving inspiration, but that’s not good enough. It’s also about willing things to happen not just passively observing. As Aalto said, “Architecture is a search for paradise on earth”. It’ll be a back and forth between listening and willing.

Do you also have a formal position in teaching architecture or design?

No itinerant Visiting Professorships right now, but I remain a full professor at Dalhousie University here in Halifax.

Any fellow speaker(s) you look forward to seeing present?
Robert Ivy, Randy Brown, Roy Decker, Will Bruder, Julie Snow, Trey Trahan – all colleagues. It’ll be rejuvenating and refreshing. The convention gets us all together to remind each other why we’re doing what we’re doing.


We look forward to his presentation entitled “Willing Paradise – Cultural Sustainability.” Read more on Brian in the convention brochure and through the links below.

Thanks so much Brian and Lisa for the great phone interview/conversation and providing the images for us.

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