In 1988, Canadian architect Brian MacKay-Lyons came across an abandoned fishing village on the south coast of Nova Scotia. Transfixed by the site’s beauty and historic ruins, he began to buy plots across an 80-acre site and spent 25 years clearing the land for agriculture. He then began constructing temporary and permanent structures and restoring historic buildings. The result is Shobac, an agricultural village that also acts as a kind of architectural testing ground for MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple, the architecture studio founded by MacKay-Lyons and Talbot Sweetapple. The most recent addition to this village, Smith House, is an expressive vacation home for an art collector couple and their family set across three striking pavilions overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
"I had a utopian urge to restore this site and to save the farmland," says MacKay-Lyons. "So, we bought land over the years knowing that we couldn’t afford to hang onto it, and have sold these lots to people who want to become a part of the village—like the client for Smith House."
The clients had seen one of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple’s projects in a magazine and decided they wanted to commission the studio. "They are art collectors, and they saw this project as an art project," says MacKay-Lyons. "It was very unusual, but in a good way."
The first meeting took place in the "sky room," an open-air space in the restored basement of a ruin near the site of Smith House dating back as far as the 1500s. During this first conversation, they decided to treat the knoll that the site sits on as "a kind of acropolis, a stone plinth that you ascend up to."
They also talked about materials. The client requested that the home incorporate some of the local granite, which was brought to the site by retreating glaciers during the last ice age. The use of Cor-Ten steel was a response to the materiality of the cottage that the couple were staying in on-site, also designed by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple.
The home is divided into three structures—a day pavilion, night pavilion, and shed—each of which differs dramatically in its spatial quality and materiality. The night pavilion, which houses bedrooms, is like a stone cave, while the day pavilion, which contains social and living spaces—including a secret wine cellar under the kitchen—is more like a temple.
The shed is a rustic space with exposed, timber framing that functions as a retreat for the clients’ children. "It’s all about creating different experiences," says MacKay-Lyons. "That contrast is something that we always try to do. You don’t notice fine craftsmanship unless it’s against something rustic."
The night pavilion is elevated on the stone plinth and the walls are partly stone—offering a contrast to the glazed walls and delicate black steel structure of the day pavilion. While the day pavilion has an ash timber ceiling, the night pavilion is realized as a timber vessel, with the sunken bedrooms designed to create a sense of refuge. The unifying element is the Cor-Ten steel roof on all three pavilions.
The day pavilion is surrounded by views of the Atlantic Ocean, which have been amplified through the architecture. "It took me 20 years to figure out that the way to make the ocean seem really great is to cut the sky out of the picture so all you can see is the ocean," says MacKay-Lyons. "It’s counterintuitive. You think high windows are good for the view, but they actually dilute it." The black steel columns even feature gaps through which the view is visible, allowing the structure to dissolve and the focus to be entirely on the spectacular views. "Our work uses the minimum of material to create the maximum experience," says MacKay-Lyons.
The day pavilion is anchored to the site through the granite hearth in the living space, which features a massive, five-ton mantle stone from a local quarry. "The steel columns are actually holding up the roof, but I wanted it to feel like the hearth was holding up the entire house," says MacKay-Lyons. "It also works to block the view from the neighboring house."
The pavilions are offset to create courtyards with their own microclimates—a response to the placement of traditional barns and homes in the local area. This space between the pavilions and the "bites," or voids in the otherwise archetypal forms, define the architecture as much as the built structures. "You have to go outdoors to go to bed," says MacKay-Lyons, of the route from the day pavilion to the night pavilion past an infinity hot tub. "It’s a bit crazy."
"I was driven by a knowledge of the environment and climate, and a history of architecture," says MacKay-Lyons. "Our work is always combines the super local with the super universal." During the design process, he looked to primary sources: both the local vernacular and modern works of architecture from around the world—from Australian architect Glenn Murcutt’s Marie Short House to Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe.
When the house was completed the clients—surprisingly—didn’t want to use it. "They wanted to rent a place from us so that they could just look at it," says MacKay-Lyons. "I said that wasn’t a very good idea and they are now using it more and more. We are also working on other projects in Nova Scotia, so they have become patrons of the community."
"Usually, when I finish something I immediately want to move onto the next thing," says MacKay-Lyons. "In this case, I can see the house from my own home, so I get to live with it and learn from it. That’s pretty special."
More by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects:
Builder: Phil Creaser
Structural Engineer: Blackwell Structural Engineers
Interior Design: MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects
Millwork: Charles Lantz Cabinetry
Stone Masons: Lange's Rock Farm
Spa Consultants: Acapulco Pools
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