In Upper Kingsburg, a small coastal hamlet near Halifax, Nova Scotia, a summer getaway has become a startlingly modern landmark. But the metal house, which resembles a shipping container about to slide toward the ocean, has local roots that run deep.
In 2000, Rhonda Rubinstein, creative director of San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, and her husband, David Peters, a design director who is originally from Halifax, bought the three acres on which the 1,700-square-foot house now sits from architect Brian MacKay-Lyons. The clients first met the architect in college—at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University, a 1970s hot spot for conceptual artists like Joseph Beuys and Sol LeWitt—and the three have remained friends ever since. The couple’s parcel has an old apple tree and a field for growing hay and grazing horses, all overlooking MacKay-Lyons’s 18th-century farm, with two of its three original barns still standing.
By 2005, when their son, Dashel, turned 4, Rhonda and David were ready to build a practical and permanent vacation home. They were confident that their friend’s firm, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, known for its "critical regionalism"—derived in part from MacKay-Lyons’s tutelage under postmodernist Charles Moore—could create a design in sync with their own progressive views of architecture.
What MacKay-Lyons eventually created for the family is a modern-day "barn" that symbolically replaces one that had long ago burned down on the site.
The home avoids mimicking the nostalgic forms of the wind-battered structures nearby, yet it emulates their minimalist materiality—a distillation of their hardy regional essence.
"The house is so much a part of identity here. In San Francisco, you’re known for the work that you do. In Kingsburg, you’re known for the house that you build." Rhonda Rubinstein, resident
MacKay-Lyons describes the house as a "box laid on a hill," and the owners have given the tough, slanted rectangle the moniker "Sliding House." The structure was deliberately placed on the edge of a hay field, out of respect for the land’s function, and is angled to withstand the kind of high westerly winds that have pushed older buildings in the vicinity to lean downhill. Its high rear balcony, above a bedroom, is a place to catch the morning sun. The thick, nearly windowless north wall contains the taut inset kitchen, a bathroom, and the stairs.
With corrugated aluminum exterior cladding, a tiled roof that drains easily, and a humble, locally milled New England poplar hardwood for floors, ceilings, and built-ins, Rhonda and David’s home is weather resistant and relatively easy to maintain.
The home’s seemingly crooked windows, arranged in a narrow diagonal band on the south face, run parallel to the floors inside and are completely level with the horizon. Strategically placed to maximize natural light and passive solar gain, the ribbon of glass starts at the top of the hill, under the bedroom loft at the west end, and runs across the length of the open-plan living and dining room to the second-story back porch.
"I’m interested in the clarity and calmness that come from using a single material. Why use two if one will do?" Brian MacKay-Lyons, architect
Through this wide, west-to-east visor, "we can see wild deer scurrying across the field at dawn, the neighbors’ cows making their morning trek or resting under a single tree in the afternoon, and distant ships gliding in the ocean at dusk," Rhonda says. Birds, owls, cats and dogs, and huge sailing vessels riding the waves also appear indoors in the form of the folk sculpture the family collects.
The no-nonsense severity of the building "makes it a piece of this place and its sturdy maritime culture," says MacKay-Lyons, a native Nova Scotian. "It is the hill versus the horizon. It is the tension between those two lines that we wanted to convey."
"Of course, this house comes as a shock in a historic neighborhood, but it is deeply respectful, perhaps not in its shape or form, but certainly in its attitude," the architect adds, explaining that, like Sliding House, peasant structures from the 1700s were spartan and austere in a very uncompromising way. "In this area, the climate and cultural ethic demand simplicity."
"I see our little house sliding down a hill as a metaphor for the precarious time in which we live, believing that design can help solve some of the challenges faced by our civilization." Rhonda Rubinstein
Now, MacKay-Lyons passes by Sliding House regularly on his way to the Rubinstein-Peters family’s field, which he personally mows in exchange for pasturing his horses there. Despite its modern profile, the house has become an intrinsic part of the architect’s village, which consists of roughly 40 households. Neighbors have embraced the structure, though many found it too foreign when it was first completed. The once gleaming and unpopular modern structure, now softened and weathered by the salt air and many seasons, has gained new and unexpected admirers: night sailors and lobster fishermen from the port of Lunenburg.
"We didn’t realize how conspicuous the house would be from the ocean until we heard that they use the light of its windows to guide their boats," David says, proudly. "Sliding House has a new status. It’s a navigation landmark."
Zahid Sardar is an author specializing in architecture, interiors, and design. He currently writes the Material World column for the San Francisco Chronicle.