For most of us, our first encounter with ghosts is through stories. We may remember parents or grandparents relating crucial events in the lives of ancestors; schoolteachers bringing to life forgotten figures from the past; or religious teachers revealing aspects of the spirit world. And who does not remember hearing ghost stories from other children? Riveting, evocative, at times terrifying - such stories allow us to feel and breathe the atmosphere of the past. We can imagine ourselves there. Ghost stories are a form of travel - not across space to other countries and cultures, but across time, carrying our imagination with us.
In the Maritime provinces of Canada, stories from the past color all aspects of present-day life. As a native son of Nova Scotia, Brian MacKay-Lyons likes to tell a story - in person or through his projects. He anchors his buildings in local stories, the "vernacular" you might say. Whether the story is true or not is immaterial. MacKay-Lyons' tales, like good ghost stories, weave magic around the telling. They evoke a timeless culture and a landscape, and allow the listener to project him- or herself into this ideal imaginary. As with fables and parables, such stories often carry a lesson.
Close your eyes and imagine a foggy mid-summer's night. Imagine the glowing, translucent ghosts of archetypal buildings on the ruins of an abandoned village at the end of the world.
This is MacKay-Lyons evocation of Ghost, the first of what would become a series of summer projects in the rural village of Upper Kingsburg on Nova Scotia's South Shore. It began in 1994, with a month-long design-build "free lab" for architecture students - one of a number of design-build labs held that year as part of the architecture program at the Technical University of Nova Scotia. In the first Ghost, nine architecture students set up camp on a ridge overlooking MacKay-Lyons "Back Forty" acres of his summer house during the month of July. Before they even began the lab, the students had to set up their rudimentary spaces of social life and retreat - their sleeping sites, cook site, privy and fire ring. Then they set to work.
The project site lay in the marshy flats below their ridge encampment, a stone's throw from the river's edge. Their first task was to clear out the overgrowth, trash and rubble that had filled the ruins of what once was a dwelling, so that the outline of the old foundations could clearly be seen. Moving their efforts to the woods on the hill, they marked black spruce and pine trees of the right diameter, chopped them down and stripped them of limbs and bark. These they fashioned into a "brace frame" over the old foundations, reconstructing the outline of a traditional 1-1/2 story house with a gable roof - the kind found throughout the village, up the river, and over much of the province. The last task was to envelope the building skeleton in large sheets of plastic tarp to complete its exterior "walls".
The result was a resurrection of a house silhouette in a cow field, an apparition, a ghost raised from earlier times. It could have been one of the earliest houses built along the La Have estuary, like the ones Samuel de Champlain spotted in 1604 as he sailed up the river toward his first landfall on the North American continent. It could have been one of the sturdy houses erected by Dutch and German-speaking settlers on land granted by the British in the 1750s. It could have been the ancestral seat of one of the established shipbuilding-fishing-farming families of nineteenth century Nova Scotia. For local old-timers, it reminded them of the landscape of their youth and childhood - "that's how it was", "that's what it was like". ...