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A Nova Scotia Ghost Story

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA
Editor in chief

Nova Scotia may be the great hidden treasure of coastal geography. Over 4000 miles of coastline snake around the peninsula, farther than the entire width of Canada, meeting the sea with bluffs and rocky headlands and lighthouses, all mediated by forested islands that reach into the Atlantic. Blessed richly with fish and fertile soil, it is no wonder that its settlement was fought over by the French and British.

Nova Scotian to his toes, Brian MacKay-Lyons, the architect from Halifax, draws from the land and its people—both culture and history—in making his own distinctive architecture. Each summer he teaches a course through Dalhousie University that steeps students in the fullness of this specific place and introduces them to the joys of building. This summer, I was invited along for the ride.

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For a week, students from across the U.S. and Canada had studied Nova Scotia and its people. A key provision of the “Ghost” projects is the site located on land near the mouth of the LaHave River that bears of the evidence of earliest settlement by Europeans. Champlain mentioned the place in his own records. According to MacKay-Lyons, archaeologists have verified that building foundations, now sunken stone pits, exhibit successive waves of occupation and construction, from the early French in the 17th century, through British, to the modern era.

This year, students planned and constructed a pavilion that bridged between the rubble footprints of two adjacent barns, long since lost to the elements. The structure served as gateway to a hallowed spot as well as link of present to past. After sinking tree-trunks into the soil as a rudimentary foundation, the students established a gridded floor plate and quickly popped up walls and the framework for a roof.

I joined the group for the last two days of their efforts and actually got into the act, wielding a hammer and climbing a ladder to change the structure at mid-stream. It was encouraging to see young people working in teams, hauling up lumber, calling out to their peers for hammers and nails, and generally figuring things out. Several had never built any structures of significance before. Their efforts were aided by the presence of a real contractor, who helped them and taught them and demystified the art of building.

Events culminated on Saturday, July 13, at a grand party that matched the excellence of the architectural program. MacKay-Lyons invited over a hundred people from the community to his farm, who processed over the idyllic hills through waist-high grasses, down to the seaside building. At dusk, a bagpiper played a plaintive song, followed by moonrise, a bonfire that sparked into the night sky, and a full breeze. As we left, an Acadian singer lamented, “Longue, longue, longue,” accompanied by two acoustic guitars. The “ghost” structure glowed from within, lit by an unseen light, while the wind buffeted the coastline. At eleven, the students vanished into the night, full of the event and the haunting memories of building.


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