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Ghost 13, Shobac, Nova Scotia, Canada, 15-17 June 2011

This was a celebration of a strand of architecture that is provincial in its positive sense

The consensus of those at Ghost 13 was that it was the best architectural conference they had attended. What a contrast to mind-numbing academic conferences where the same figures flogged to death long ago - Benjamin, Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, Deleuze - are recycled once more. In part, Ghost 13’s success was because the conference was about actual buildings and the architecture shown was exceptionally fine. The delivery of the presentations was of a high standard too, always thoughtful and occasionally theatrical, on the last day as a series of comic turns.

But to understand how the conference came about and its name, Ghost 13, requires some background. For the previous 12 summers, about 30 mostly North American architectural students have met for two weeks in this spectacular coastal setting in Nova Scotia to design, detail and build a structure. This is the Ghost Lab, founded and run by Brian Mackay-Lyons, with the involvement of his family and his architectural office, Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects (MLSA). Based in Halifax, where Mackay-Lyons is a professor at Dalhousie University, MSLA is one of North America’s leading architectural practices, known especially for its houses in rural settings that draw on various aspects of local vernacular construction.

Besides Mackay-Lyons, the ‘faculty’ for the first 12 Ghosts included a visiting distinguished architect and a critic-scribe; local builder Gordon MacLean (who builds many houses by MLSA) and, in many cases, Bob Benz, an architect who had worked for Mackay-Lyons and is experienced in hands-on construction. Though almost all such faculty are also university professors, these Ghosts presented a contrast to, or even a critique of, conventional architectural education and mainstream practice. With everyone involved in everything, participants learnt about the enlivening nature of collaboration and common purpose, strongly forged by stringent time pressures, hands-on experience and physical toil. Students find participating in Ghost tremendously empowering, particularly in losing a fear of construction and acquiring that all important feel for it.

Initially, the structures built were temporary and of fairly notional functionality. The spectral presence of some of these lingering in the frequent fog, and memories of those that did not last, as well as of earlier inhabitants on the site (some of whom left stone remnants of European settlement predating 1604), are among the ghosts evoked by the workshops.

Latterly, the structures have become functional and permanent. Ghost 7’s legacy is a row of four ‘cabins’ - which are actually rather luxurious holiday cottages. Ghost 8, in which I participated, finalised the design and detail of, and erected the structure and enclosed a large and lofty studio for Mackay-Lyons. Ghost 9 built stables, Ghost 11 a lagoon-side boat house and Ghost 12 re-erected a historic octagonal barn, which Mackay-Lyons had bought and disassembled elsewhere in Nova Scotia.

The purchase and erection of this beautiful barn was fortuitously timed. Mackay-Lyons had always talked of convening a conference after the first 12 Ghosts so their visiting faculty could meet to take stock. Here now was the ideal venue: the barn seated up to 200 while the speakers were housed in cabins and nearby holiday houses by MLSA. Conference attendees stayed in Lunenburg, the picturesque UNESCO World Heritage town a 20-minute drive up the coast. There too, in a large church, were the evening keynote addresses attended also by local townspeople and students from Dalhousie.

Enjoying the built legacy of earlier Ghosts and taking place on the same spectacular site, the event was a celebration of a particular strand of architecture that is provincial in the most positive sense: native to its place and involving its craftsmen and community. The architect-speakers had mostly participated in previous Ghosts and, except for two Australians, were North American. Only keynote speaker Juhani Pallasmaa, moderator Ingerid Helsing Almaas (Editor-in-chief of Arkitektur N, the Norwegian Review of Architecture), myself and some attendees came from Europe. As with earlier Ghosts, this group could be seen as representing a counter trend to that dominant in academe and the mainstream; but the hope that conclusions of consequence for architectural education would emerge was not realised, or at least not yet.

The conference title was ‘Ideas in Things’. My inference was that this conjunction of ideas and things implies that too much architecture today represents ideas ungrounded in the thing-ness of construction and craft (post-modern illustrations of concept and theory) or thing-ness devoid of any enlivening idea (icons and minimalism). Each of the three days was loosely dedicated to a theme, introduced in the keynote address of the evening before, and the subject of a panel discussion introduced by a historian after the day’s presentations by architects.

The first day’s theme was Place, introduced the previous evening by Kenneth Frampton, who discussed the background to his seminal writings on Critical Regionalism and how he stands by the ideas and has elaborated them in later writings. Four of the five speakers were from the southern US: Rick Joy and Ted Flato of Lake Flato from Texas, Wendell Burnette from Arizona and Marlon Blackwell from Arkansas. The odd one out, as a woman and urbanite, was Deborah Berke of New York.

Many works shown were houses in rural or suburban settings, which tended to be self-contained objects, framing views of magnificent landscapes. They demonstrated a sensitive response to place, rather than forging the urban sense of place at which modern architecture has failed. Even Berke sought inconspicuous, if orderly, urban anonymity rather than creating buildings that elicit an empathic relationship with passers-by (a key to creating place). Although all showed fine work, the most generally pertinent was Lake Flato, whose pragmatic approach interweaves nature and the manmade into a regenerative, symbiotic ecology.

Juhani Pallasmaa gave the keynote talk before the second day. Topically relevant as always, he did not directly address the theme of craft, as he did so well in The Thinking Hand, but he discussed embodied thinking. The first two of that day’s five speakers were among the highlights. Patricia Patkau’s description of Vancouver’s Patkau Architects’ design processes and concepts was wonderfully thoughtful. Australian Peter Stutchbury was a star performer, presenting a sensitive and informed Whitefella’s response to his ancient land and its traditions.

I introduced the panel discussion that followed by picking up on Pallasmaa’s emphasis on embodied thinking, and pointing out that craft applied not only to construction, but to shaping all aspects of the design. I also contrasted concept and craft, academe tending to emphasise the former while the architects here tended to ground their work in the latter. But, as with conceptual art, the former tends to engage only the conscious mind while slowly crafting a design involves the unconscious too, which is why the results are more deeply engaging. Then Vancouver critic Trevor Boddy pertinently enquired if what we had seen so far was not the equivalent to the Arts and Crafts movement, a well-intended counter-movement affordable only by the few. Fortunately, the work shown on the final day was to prove quite different.

The final keynote speaker was Glen Murcutt, a great raconteur, responding spontaneously to pre-selected questions. The day itself was devoted to ‘Community’, predominantly works built for poor communities by students. The first three presenters were great comedians. But then working in this way, with the pressures and frustrations that go with raising money and getting approvals from communities and authorities, you either laugh or kill yourself.

First up was Andrew Freear, a Brit in a God-foresaken part of Alabama, where 43 per cent live below the poverty line. Following Samuel Mockbee’s death, he has taken over running Auburn University’s Rural Studio. After a range of old and new projects, he showed prototypes for a standardised $20,000 (£12,500) house. Next Dan Rockhill presented works of the University of Kansas’ Studio 804 using Passiv Haus principles. Then came Steve Badanes of Jersey Devil Design/Build, who have been active for 25 years, living on site in tents or Airstream caravans while constructing homes ahead of their times in their ingenious environmental control systems. He now runs the Neighbourhood Design/Build Studio for the University of Washington, building structures as part of landscaping and community garden developments.

Finally Mackay-Lyons closed the presentations by running through MLSA’s prolific output. The architect is best known for houses set sensitively in the landscape and, as Frank Lloyd Wright before, composing variations on a limited range of types. After the almost overwrought quality of some works shown, these buildings were refreshingly apt: knowing when to stop crafting a design helps to deliver livability as well as affordability.

Despite the conference’s acknowledged success, perhaps one shortcoming was the lack of truly urban work and the limited amount of public buildings and spaces. The finely crafted, often lavish private houses in magnificent rural settings, so much in evidence in the first two days, were not a type relevant to a post-Peak Oil future. Although designs were presented as environmentally responsible, only a few buildings were of state-of-the art sustainable design, and even fewer approached true sustainability. This topic, the defining challenge of our times, was barely discussed. Highlighting place, craft and community are key antidotes to current weaknesses in architecture - but not enough to point a way forward in these historically pivotal times.

The conference was a celebration of some of the best architecture of the moment that did not illuminate the future of architectural education much. Probably most pertinent was the work of Lake Flato and the absent Francis Kéré, who spoke briefly on Skype and builds serviceable and climatically sensitive buildings with limited means for impoverished communities. Mackay-Lyons and MLSA, whose work was abundantly evident all about, show how to once again build in a way that is rooted in and extends local traditions, responding to the particulars of setting without falling prey to over-crafted preciousness.

The issue now, after the excitement of the conference, and tangible achievements of the earlier Ghosts, is how to follow on? Many proposals have been floated, from setting up a website to launching further conferences elsewhere in the world, to housing future Ghost participants on site but building off-site for local communities. Mackay-Lyons, who has organised all these Ghosts with considerable effort and at personal financial risk, now needs to ponder if and how he wants to continue. We await what emerges.

Ghost 13

Where: Shobac, Nova Scotia, Canada

When: 15-17 June 2011

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