Processing Ghost 13: An International Architecture Conference

Nova Scotia, June 14-17 2011
Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, Hosts

Ghost 13 Event Web Page

I'm still processing this rural retreat conference for architects. I have had alternate sensations of comfort, seeking, challenging ambition, and relative ennui ever since.

I went because I work in a walled garden, in an idealized small town within prosperous rural agricultural counties. We have lovely clients. It's a life focused and barely compromised, but it is isolated.

It was a safe bet I'd be pleased with what I'd hear, and would be in the company of my tribe. I've already bought into so much of what was to be promoted there. They were going to preach to the choir. We would say hallelujah.

I wanted to attend because I had just turned 60. My architectural practice has been reinvented four times already, and before I launched number five, I thought it would be a good time to check in with The Others. To mostly listen, then connect all the dots: perhaps some pattern would appear. And that would strengthen, or even modify my next professional iteration.

I was curious about some of the successful small practitioners. Those who, like myself, had abandoned large practices in order to connect more directly with the work. Those who also practiced a form of regionalism. Those who practiced outside the usual cultural hot spots, and yet remained connected. Those who built and designed. Or those for whom building technology and craft could be a design method.

The speakers were my generation's most lauded practitioners and thinkers within the rather broad themes of sustainable architecture, regionalism, craft, and community.

This was Woodstock for Architects: see DesignBuildBluff founder Hank Louis channeling Joni Mitchell in his eloquent rift to Ghost13 at Hank Louis Diary Link

Then there was our audience. Easily four or five generations of architectural eras, ages 20something to 90something. Perhaps 120 conference attendees and an audience of hundreds for the evening keynote lectures.

I recognized the architect genome in the hundreds of faces: I had not met anyone before, but I'd known most of these humans all of my life.

There were many thoughtful voices in the audience, among them Michaelangelo Sabatino, Scott Francisco, Trevor Boddy. There were other voices I did not meet, but not because I didn't try: any line at the coffee, the bathroom, the lunch, or in random seatings prompted introductions fore and aft. This was serious chat-roulette. Perhaps a quarter of those attending were somewhat like me: mature, regional practicing principals. Their variations on the theme were more than I had hoped for.

The generosity and good will was palpable and surprising for such a gathering. I don't think it was just Canada. My guess was that no one could possibly believe that he or she was the smartest person in the room. Tom Kundig started his presentation, but stammered, gushing at the caliber of the company before resuming to modestly present some of the buildings I admire most.

In fact, that was one of my growing impressions of the symposium: that there were a hundred or more surprising opportunities for considerable respect. Very different forms of sensitivity were presented and in attendance. There were the venerable elder masters, the charismatic professors, and the articulate authors. There were the visionary college deans. The cerebral introverts and the rock stars. The urban and the rural. The sophisticates and the savages. The cultured and counter-cultured. Women and men. Editors and journalists. Renegades, saints, intellectuals, Old Testament prophets, poets, mudsmiths, tech nerds, surfers, hot rodders, tinkerers, mad scientists, and tin men. Each in this congress of architects had more or less successfully wrought some well evolved works from their land, their culture, their raw materials, and even their demons. Who knew that there were so many paths to Allah?

Most began with stories and images that were as love poems to their homelands. I cried for some. Australian Peter Stutchbury's bush narratives and family's old station. Opposite Deborah Berke presented New York City with a similar sentiment, and succeeded. Richard Kroeker's seeking hands built a canoe, then various wigwams, then lead him to a rather profound series of buildings for contemporary Native Americans. Making is a method of understanding.

There was the anger and empathy of Andrew Freear, his history with the Rural Studio in Alabama, and the distilled, raw bone $20K house prototype.
Was it a surprise that our host Brian Mackay-Lyons was the very embodiment of the balanced Critical Regionalist?

There were great celebrations of teams. There were a variety of design build practices in which teaching architecture and building were one and the same. Teaching architecture was a rather common denominator among the speakers.

There were the moderators and historians who, although they had only minutes to give introductions and only seconds of commentary compared to the hour presentations, delivered many of the most dense and influential contributions.
Maybe it would have tested the love-fest, but with such a congress assembled, I regret that some form of manifesto or credo had not been made there, to be delivered and nailed on the door of the Castle Church.

Among the many ideas, I am most thankful for the following impressions:
1- That there was so much heart and humanity, yet not one atom of kitsch here.
2- That architects may be avoiding community involvement because we keep ourselves on a pedestal and cannot be in full control.
3- Writing, teaching and speaking are excellent ways to stay connected and challenged.
4- Metaphor is our full and unconscious way of thinking.
5- Our million year biological and cultural histories are fundamental to architectural substance.
6-Vernacular architecture represents the anthropological source. It embodies the wisdom of a region, a people, and its elders.
7- The post-petrochemical era is an ecologically motivated era. The environment, and sustainable practices are the biggest thing to happen since Modernism.
8- Sustainability is a middle ground practice between abundance and scarcity.
9- Ecologically sound architecture may have more to do with landscape architecture.
10- In the end, the only really sustainable buildings are the ones that we wish to continue to inhabit.

Links to Speakers at Ghost 13
in order of appearence

Kenneth Frampton (Books)
Rick Joy
Ted Flato
Wendell Burnette
Deborah Berke
Marlon Blackwell
Ingerid Helsing Almaas (Books)
Juhani Pallasmaa (Books)
Patricia Patkau
Peter Stutchbury
Brigette Shim
Vincent James and Jennifer Yoo
Tom Kundig
Glenn Murcutt
Andrew Freear/Rural Studio
Dan Rockhill
Steve Badanes/Jersey Devil
Richard Kroeker
Brian MacKay-Lyons and Talbot Sweetapple
Christine Macy
Robert McCarter
Peter Buchanan (Books)
Thomas Fisher (Books)