Design Dialogue: Brian MacKay-Lyons

Photo by Cherish Rosas

Photo by Cherish Rosas


Brian MacKay-Lyons is the founding partner of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, a professor at Dalhousie University, and the founder of Ghost Lab – the now legendary 2-week summer design/build program that took place on his family farm in Nova Scotia from 1994 to 2011. While relentlessly local, Brian’s work has been recognized internationally with more than 100 awards, 300 publications, and 100 exhibitions. In 2012, the American Institute of Architects recognized the collective work and influence of Ghost with an Institute Honor Award for Architecture. Jurors, including Thomas Phifer of Thomas Phifer & Partners and Kristen Murray of Olson Kundig Architects said of Ghost: 

“This project reveals itself as more than just a grouping of buildings; it is a physical experiment in education as well as an act of will to preserve the serene beauty in the landscape. As a teaching tool, the students find themselves immersed in an environment where they are challenged to produce high quality designs they can self-construct. This project is truly more than the sum of its parts; it is a wonderful resolution of materials, details, landscape, and learning.”

On August 22nd, 2014 Brian hopped off his tractor and wiped the diesel fuel off his hands to discuss architectural education with Keith and Marie Zawistowski, co-founders of the design/buildLAB at Virginia Tech and partners of OnSite Architecture.

[An excerpt from this interview appeared in volume 25, number 4 of Inform Magazine ]

Marie Zawistowski:              You are a famous architect, revered by many inside and outside the discipline. We, and our generation of architects, have collected books about your work, and your projects have received international recognition. How do you feel about that?

Brian Mackay-Lyons:          Wow… I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s true, first of all. But to the extent that it is true, I think that the peer discourse on architecture and on architectural education is really important. To be part of the conversation with other people around the world who are excited about design is really rewarding.

It seems like so much of the discourse is focused on the big urban centers. Having sat on a lot of design juries for big urban centers, I am not sure that it’s even true that the best work is happening there. In fact, I am sure it isn’t but it’s really important to be part of an international discourse if you are operating in a small isolated place like I am and like you are. You have the benefit of being able to concentrate, live in a place where you can get your work done and not be distracted by cocktail parties, and at the same time feel connected to the larger discourse. You can get cabin fever working in a small place.

Keith:      Your contributions to the discipline of architecture have been both in practice and in education. In 1994, you founded Ghost, an international laboratory that influenced generations of architects with its simplicity and affirmation of timeless architectural values of place and craft. It was a pretty bold move, and it seems for us like it was a direct reaction to your discontentment with academia and the way architects were being educated. Do you still feel that strongly about the state of architecture education and the profession?

Brian:     Yeah, for sure! And it would still be a fair criticism of both, because I think both have a role in the education of architects. I felt like – and still feel like – the schools get flakier and flakier, and the practices become more and more philistine. Practice is becoming increasingly dominated by a corporate globalized culture, and the small firms are getting eaten up.

Practices have not been doing as good a job as they used to at the apprenticeship part of education. I think large corporate practice views young people as mobile capital, human capital. The idea that you take someone under your wing as an apprentice, the way Louis Sullivan took Frank Lloyd Wright, is not as strong as it used to be.

So I don’t just blame the schools anymore. I started out being pretty clear that I thought the schools were getting flaky. You know how it goes, the university culture forces people to get Ph.D.’s. So they get a Ph.D. and they are 45 years old and they have never seen a two-by-four. And the last thing they want the students to think or understand is that they don’t know what a two-by-four is. So they have to call it some flaky name and hope that they never get found out.

Then those same faculty members choose the new faculty members in the school and the balance is tipped towards schools without practitioners, or schools where there is nothing behind the curtain, like in The Wizard of Oz.

Keith:      So what do you think the education and the architect ought to look like?

Ghost 1 - Photo by Nicole Delmage

Ghost 1 – Photo by Nicole Delmage

Brian:     Well, what I don’t think it needs to look like is an all design/build curriculum. I guess I have also learned that it has its limitations, like everything. One reason that Ghost has taken this hiatus is because I realized that I was being insincere.

I believe an architect’s role is not to be the builder. The architect’s role — like a conductor’s role in an orchestra — is not to be the first violinist either. I learned at Ghost that because I’m not a builder, I would volunteer for really dumb jobs on the site like driving spikes or carrying lumber. It was only when I was doing something not very challenging craft wise that I had the distance from the coal face that I think an architect needs to have to be the architect. I also learned in practice that contractors aren’t happier if you start to act like a builder and start telling them where to pile the lumber or how to do things. I found that what works best in the construction industry is, when the builder asks you a question, to say you don’t know the answer. Then the builder can be the builder and their experience is then something you can learn from.

I think both in practice and education, the architect is like Chauncey Gardiner in the movie Being There, when he said, “I like to watch.” I think that is what architects do, they watch. So I think there is a romance around design/build that is a little bit misleading. However, I also think that it is really essential. Like in The Fountain Head, it’s essential to have the experience of building in your education or in your practice. Rick Joy built the first six houses he did, but that was it.

The reason to have had the Ghost Lab is for architects to learn humility, so that they don’t become the asshole architects on the site telling the builders what to do and not respecting them.

There are countless stories at Ghost. My favorite stories are when the architects and the people with Ph. D.’s and the engineers had it all wrong, and some guy who didn’t even go to high school just makes them look really dumb. <all laugh> It is a wonderful experience.

So really Ghost was about humility. Realizing that builders are really smart in a different kind of way than us and that we would do well to listen.

Marie:     Ghost was set up as a master-apprentice model with students gleaning the knowledge of experienced professionals through the collective design and construction of buildings. As you know, I’m French and I studied in Paris, and during my studies in Paris my colleagues and our faculty actually rebelled against the studio master model. We felt strongly that it impeded on students’ ability to think for themselves. We protested in the streets, wrote a curriculum (very French), and created a new school, l’Ecole d’Architecture Paris Malaquais, where students had the freedom to shape their own education.

When I got to the Rural Studio, Sambo [Mockbee]’s laissez-faire approach was very similar. He was empowering 20-year-old students to make projects happen. My question to you is this: in a master-apprentice model such as Ghost, how do you teach someone to function on their own?

Brian:     It’s a really good question. Sambo and I used to talk about this issue, because I think the best work in the Rural Studio came from when Sambo had a stronger hand. And when he was in his more laissez-faire mode, I felt that the work suffered and the quality of the outcome suffered. I remember going to the Rural Studio when Sambo was already ill and he didn’t have as strong a hand in it. I went one evening and I heard people talk about what they were going to do the next day. I went the next day and everybody was angry on the site, all the students, because they said, “I thought we agreed on this. Who is in charge here anyway? Just because you got here at 7:30 doesn’t mean that you get to decide how to do this.” There was a lot of unhappiness and the project that came out of it was not very good.

It’s just like that in participatory design. Giancarlo De Carlo, the Italian architect who was the originator of this participatory design method, before he died, said to me: “You know, to serve is not to be a servant.” The creativity myth is a problem. It’s not enough in participatory design to just draw what the public says. Otherwise why have professionals?

I am a big critic of the “noble savage” way of thinking about creativity. I think it’s a myth. I think if you take your clothes off and you sit on a rock and wait for a lightning bolt to strike you in the head so you can draw something that no one has ever seen before, you are going to be waiting a long time. It’s not going to work. It’s not going to produce anything and you are going to be doomed to this view of the world – to being an amateur forever. That’s the problem, to be the naive amateur always. It’s like if you want to learn to ski, you go ski with someone who is really good and you try to keep up. You try to model what you do after what they do.

I guess I don’t find that threatening in the least because I believe in the individual so deeply that it’s not an issue. I would say in architecture there are many legitimate mysteries that come down to the individual’s judgment, so why mystify the few things that we can be clear about?

If you don’t want to split the board when you drive a nail in it, you should flip the nail over and put it on a hard knot and bend the end of it so it crushes the wood rather than split the wood. Well, someone just has to tell you that and show you that, and then you know that forever and you’re free! You’re freed by the gift of a lesson; you are now a free person. I think if you keep splitting the board you just look stupid. <all laugh>

So if you believe in that, then you can say, “Okay, what is there to teach?” Let’s teach the few things very clearly and learn by modeling other people’s behavior. I think that it is a major problem in our society that we are hung up on this. It’s a useless concern.

Keith:      Our friend and colleague at Virginia Tech, Patrick Doan, has been doing a kind of design/build with his students, operating at the scale of the detail. They have been building fragments and mock-ups, and he often brings us the questions of “failure” and “time” in design/build, particularly as they relate to full-scale design/build projects.

There is an enormous distinction between the kind of design/build you have done at Ghost and just about every other design/build program, in that the land on which the projects are built actually belongs to you. This unique context brings to mind Patrick’s questions of “failure” and “time.” When you literally own the work, are mistakes – or what we call “teachable moments” – resisted or embraced?

Ghost Lab Campus - Photo by Brian MacKay-Lyons

Ghost Lab Campus – Photo by Brian MacKay-Lyons

Brian:     You certainly wear them and your family wears them, because you have to go and take out mortgages to fix them. The excitement of a one-week design and a one-week build is phenomenal, and it takes care of so many things for you, like ego: there is no time for ego. If someone wants to sit and pout for a day, they’re just in the ditch. So I think that’s very good. But it was reckless what we did, and we did it at a time when I think there were fewer regulations about safety and everything. So it was feverish, it was exciting, it was very, very exciting, and then the next day you wear it. It’s like the day after a binge, you go, “Oh boy, I got a headache today.” And the students are gone. They were involved in the glory work and then you have to pay the piper at the end. So that is one of the reasons why we stopped Ghost – because we couldn’t afford to do it. Everybody thinks we had this big pot of money – well we had no money, none.

Keith:      A few minutes ago you referenced corporate architecture’s shirking of its responsibility to take on the training of young architects. I think you referred to them as “mobile human capital.” This comment really resonates with me because as a young architecture school graduate, I did everything in my power to avoid getting a “job.” Ultimately I had to do IDP so I had to get a job for a short period of time, and I basically slogged through it.

One of my great influences, Professor Shelley Martin from Virginia Tech, once introduced Marie and me at a talk as “defining practice for ourselves,” and for me that description comes from not having followed the scripted or traditional path. In a way, Ghost too clearly attempted to work against the numbing trends in contemporary practice. How do you think the academy ought to balance its responsibility to prepare creative, critical thinking architects, with parents’ and the profession’s expectation of preparing employable architects? Because I think there is a pretty big difference.

Brian:     That’s a tough one. The unfortunate thing is that it’s becoming a bigger difference.

Keith:      We can’t count how many times we’ve heard students say, “If I don’t learn BIM, I won’t be able to get a job,” as if BIM competence has become the sole measure of what the academy ought to be teaching.

Brian:     Well let me give you two reactions to what you are saying. They are not answers, they are just responses. And I will flip the table around. They are going to be contradictory.

Keith & Marie:       Perfect. <all laugh>

Photo by Manuel Schnell

Photo by Manuel Schnell

Brian:     As teachers, we have to be Socratic, we have to be willing to flip the chess board around a few times.

In an interview with I.M. Pei’s partner, Frank Gehry was being asked by Harry Cobb whether he was an artist or an architect.  Frank was very strident about saying: “I am an architect.” And, he went to art school. This is a great example because if there is anybody who people have thought of as an artist, it’s Frank Gehry. He’s not a conventional architect. But he said no, he said: “I am an architect because the medium of architecture is the construction industry.” In its vernacular ugly glory, the construction industry itself is cultural. And we are in the culture business. The conventional practice of architecture that interfaces with the conventional construction industry of our time is our medium. I really was moved by that. I agreed with him.

So I think that, and at the same time I understand what you guys did, and it’s what I did. There are people, we know their names, that are like us, that have done this. They said, “Well fuck that, I’m not going and working in that sweatshop.” You do an extra degree or you get a teaching job, and you stay away. You try to maintain your naivety or integrity, your principles, by not going in that mind-numbing thing because you know that six months in there can ruin you for the rest of your life. I think it is very sad that you and I and so many of our respective colleagues have had to go that route of the boutique, of the outsider, the resistance: the resistance to globalized culture, the resistance to corporate practice. Because I fundamentally am interested in the vernacular; I am interested in how nasty subdivisions are actually built. Do you know what I mean? So it is with disappointment that I acknowledge what you are saying. It’s a survival instinct. You only live once, right? So you have got to spend your life in a way that’s fulfilling. If it means being part of a resistance, part of the Salon des Refusés, being on the outside of corporate practice, then I guess that’s it.

You know we all longingly look in, right? And we look in and see people building the world, and we are not much part of it. It is getting worse and worse, because the corporate firms are buying the little firms, and they are using the little firm’s designers and portfolios to get all the work now. The middle-sized practices have disappeared. So you are either completely on the outside or nearly on the outside, like us, or you’re working for the devil. The middle option is disappearing because we know that capital concentrates. It is the only thing, frankly, that Marx was probably right about: capital concentrates. We are seeing a kind of consolidation of practice toward these giant, multi, many-thousands-of-person-firms, and then little firms, little tiny firms. And it’s an unwholesome picture. I think it’s sad in a way.

Keith:   We came across somebody recently whose job title was Director of Acquisitions for a firm. It blew us out of our chairs.

Brian:     Yeah, that’s somebody that’s got to have a very clean desk. <all laughing> But I guess I don’t see it. I was on two juries last week, one in California for the AIA, and the other one was for this Moriyama Prize, which is a very big international prize, a hundred thousand dollar prize that is being started this year. The subtext of all of the discussions, all of the messages that come from who gets the awards, is this question: what is happening to our profession, the coarsening of the grain of our profession? You have firms that used to get small institutional work and did amazing jobs at it. Now they can’t get it anymore. Then the discussion of what happens to young people: where do they go? This is the discussion that I now find we are having all of the time. It’s depressing because we get together and we commiserate.

So, I don’t know what the answer is. I guess I gave up a long time ago thinking I was going to change the world. But you have limited time on the planet, so you should spend it doing what you find fulfilling.

Marie:    Over the years Ghost, has evolved from an outgrowth of your professorship at Dalhousie University into the extension of your practice. It’s on your firm’s website and it was held during the summers when students were on break from school. Why did you move away from the effort to transform academia from within?

Brian:     If you are a filmmaker, do you go to Hollywood and try to change the film industry from within, or do you become an iconoclast artist and make films like Waiting for Godot that no one ever watches? So changing the world from within the evil empire or from within the halls of academia is something I have little time for. I guess personally – this is the selfish person speaking now – I don’t enjoy teaching as much as I enjoy practicing. People say to me, “Oh, then why do you teach?” They say, “It must be so that you can be stimulated by young people and be up to date, abreast with the spirit of the times,” and I say, “Well, not really.” It’s like people say, “Why do you build? You build for posterity?” No, you don’t build for prosperity. If all your buildings burn down tomorrow, you’d go and make another one the next day. It might set you back ’till lunchtime. <all laugh>

I think the most valuable thing about teaching is not that you are surrounded by young people, who don’t mind climbing stairs as much. I think it is because in order to teach, you and I, we have to take the anecdotal lessons of messy practice and process them and objectify them into principles that we can explain to other people. I think we teach because it makes us better architects, because if you can really be clear about what you are thinking and doing, you are a better architect. Teaching is an amazing workout, so I just see teaching as going to the gym. It is not to be surrounded by young people. Because we all know young people are no more or less radical than old people, they just don’t mind the stairs as much. Young people can be very reactionary and older people can be very liberal.

Keith:      I can see that. You know, we feel really fortunate to be teaching at Virginia Tech. What we like about Virginia Tech is its Bauhaus lineage. Our school has a rich history of making, and shops that are very active. In the opening lines of your Ghost 12 documentary video, you described your own professors as “a bunch of failed architects,” to which our reaction was “whoa, did he just say that?”

Brian:     I must have been tired. My guard was down I guess. But no, I have a tremendous respect for academics, real ones, like someone who’s a gifted teacher or a historian who writes books – they can change the world.

Keith:      There are a few clips from your new book, Local Architecture, floating around the web, and in one of them you lament the days when schools were led by the likes of Gropious, Kahn, and Moneo. You even argued a few minutes ago that university promotion criteria lead professors away from practice.

One of our friends, David Hinson, is a practicing architect and also directs the school at Auburn. He once provocatively asked us if professional licensure should be a prerequisite to teaching architecture. He even went a little further and asked if we thought that professors ought to be required to maintain active practices. What’s your take on his question?

Brian:     I would say there needs to be a balance, and I think it needs to be a healthy balance, that’s all. Charles Moore used to say to me: “You need to take history courses from proper art historians and you need to take history courses from practicing architects. They are very different courses and you need both,” and I agree with that. An architect uses history like mining. He’s a miner of history.

I know a law school where they have a rule that 50% of the professors have to be academics and the other 50% have to be what they call “down-towners.” I think that is a pretty good model; in other words, I’m not chauvinistic about it. I’m involved in teaching and practice. I think they are both important and I think there are things that I learned from proper academics that I think are really valuable, so it’s just a balance.

Keith:      Incidentally, our answer wasn’t so different. We told him some of the people that have had the most profound impact on our educations weren’t necessarily practicing architects.

Brian:     Yeah, what is wrong having Socrates for a professor, you know? Could be worse right? So it is all important.

Keith:      In an interview you did with Norma Lee MacLeod of CBC Radio, you say you think we can pay our respect to tradition and be modern at the same time. Even in the biography for your book, Documents in Canadian Architecture, you refer to yourself as a “modern regionalist.” I don’t break out the dictionary very often, but the O.E.D. defines modern as “denoting a current or recent style or trend in art or architecture or other cultural activity marked by a significant departure from traditional styles and values.” How do you square this apparent contradiction in terms?

Brian:     Wow…

Marie:     Can we be both modern and regional?

Brian:     Of course. There is a quote by Octavio Paz – the Mexican poet – about this issue, and to the extent that words are useful or sufficient in architecture, I take his quote. It goes like this: “Taken alone, tradition stagnates and modernity vaporizes; taken together modernity breathes life into tradition and tradition responds by providing depth and gravity.”

I like that. I believe it. And I guess when I look at the great modern architects like Louis Kahn and Mies van der Rohe, who are on the top of my list, they make this issue a non-issue. These guys, and a few others, they are searching for timeless archetypal human values, the classics in the world. I mean when you look at the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn, you see an absolutely innovative structure and lighting system. Or what we – with our relative lack of historical understanding compared to his – think is innovative. Look at Roman baths in North Africa. In a way, I think the best work, the very best work, is like that, it’s timeless. It has this timeless quality. And the word timeless, if you look that one up, it’s probably not a problem.

I’m sorry I am sounding like a Robert Venturi here, “both/and” all the time. Made worse by being Canadian. We have a reputation for being reasonable.

Marie:     Reasonable is good. Your work and design philosophy is particularly sensitive to the natural environment. What are your thoughts about the profession’s current obsession with programs such as LEED, Passivhaus, and other acronyms of so-called “green” design?

Brian:     Well, Glenn Murcutt calls all of that “green washing.” He’s the master, and he couldn’t get high LEED certification because he wouldn’t have any of those points for mechanical systems because he is so smart he doesn’t need any in his buildings.

It was a big part of the discussion this week in California. It was the other elephant in the room: education, always, where the profession is going, and then this whole environmental issue. Because we know it is deeply important. I personally find that vernacular building traditions, which are based on the principle that what you do that is sustainable, is what you do when you can’t afford to get it wrong. So if you want to find sustainable solutions, you look to what comes out of people of various vernacular traditions operating with modest means. What do you do when you can’t afford to get it wrong? You get it wrong and you die.

Glenn Murcutt talks about operating in the deserts of Australia. You go in a ditch, and if you don’t figure out what to do in six hours, you’re dead. That sense of urgency that I think we try to simulate with design/build is what produces sustainable solutions.

The bureaucratic or technocratic side of these things is always a cottage industry, but it’s not all bad. I mean LEED has helped, right? If you don’t know how to ride a bike, training wheels are useful. I do think the bureaucratic side is not without its merit, and some people who really believe in it have told me you’ve got to start somewhere, you’ve got to start with something. But architecture is about integration. And when you try to break things down into isolated quantitative things, it is fundamentally not about design. It’s another thing. I don’t want to be against LEED, I think it has helped us, but the best work doesn’t come out of that way of thinking. Of that I am certain.

Marie:     You’ve written about the impact of Team 10 on your own intellectual development as an architect. You are also very close friends with architects such as Rick Joy, Marlon Blackwell, Tom Kundig, and Wendell Burnette. You guys visit each other’s work, travel together and even look in on each other’s families. Do you consider yourselves a school of thought – a movement in architectural history?

Brian:     Oh boy that’s another tough question. You know, there’s this book coming out called Local Architecture, which is Princeton Architectural Press’s idea of how to take all of that and make a name for it that sells books. <all laugh> It’s really called “building place, craft, and community.” I think all of us think that there is a curriculum there.

Rick [Joy] asked: “What is a curriculum for architecture today? What would it look like?” My temperament toward the timeless side of things and the fundamentals would be to say that there are 3 courses in the school of architecture: one is about place, one is about craft and one is about community. You only need three courses; it could be the best school in the world…

So the name of that book is really an idea about a curriculum, to bring it back to education. Because in that conference that we had in our barn a couple of years ago, education, again, was the elephant in the room. Nobody was talking about it, while everybody was talking about it. Because we’re all teachers, right? Ask me the question again, I had an answer.

Keith:      Do you guys consider yourselves a school of thought? Are you a movement, the way that Team 10 was?

Brian:     I don’t know, maybe a little bit… I know that sounds very egotistical and that is why I didn’t just come out and say it.

Marie:     But I said it.

Brian:     Yeah, there you go! I forgot it, conveniently. Yes, about education, would be the answer. Peter Buchanan calls this group of people, which includes many others, “The Resistance.” And maybe we will have an exhibition that will go around after the book comes out and Peter will be the curator, and we will call the exhibition “Resistance,” just the idea of resistance. A resistance to the unwholesome break between the academy and practice, between the head and the hand, we’re a school about that. We agree on that. The idea about where you find your lessons, to be environmentally sustainable, we probably agree on all of that.

Mostly I think, to take Kenneth Frampton‘s position, the value of “Critical Regionalism” is in its resistance to the numbing effects of globalization, cultural globalization, which includes architecture and everything else. That’s a school, yeah for sure, that’s a school! We think of regionalism – and I hate the word, just like I hate the word sustainability, but we need a word. When you hear the word regionalism, people think conservative, parochial, provincial… and what I like about the other, the view that we hold as a group, is this idea of resistance.

It’s a critical position; it’s a radical position. It’s like saying I don’t get it; I’m not buying it. I think it is a radical position, this position of “resistance,” so maybe there is a school there.

Keith:      Part of the reason we asked the question is because I think long before you guys started to identify with that, the world almost saw a kind of inevitability. You guys were the guys that were together on my bookshelf when I was in college. And I was floored when I first met Marlon Blackwell a few years ago, and he told me you guys were getting ready to go on a trip together to see the Dogon in Mali. I thought, “of course they would go together. How could they not all be close friends?”

Brian:     The better story is that Frampton, Pallasmaa and Murcutt were all going to go on that trip too and it was their wives who told them “no you can’t go because you are going to die there.” But Juhani [Pallasmaa] said to Rick [Joy]. He said: “So, Rick, when was the last time you went to the Dogon?” And Rick said: “The who?” We had all been raised on that book, Architecture without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky.

Keith:      It’s a cherished one for us too.

Brian:     It changed the world that book, and it is just a picture book after all, you know? Where is the thesis, where are the words? The idea that you can look in other places for inspiration… I was also influenced by Charles Moore in that way. Sea Ranch was an important project because it said you can look at just the barns; you can look at sheep barns. You can look at other stuff; it doesn’t have to be sanctioned. You can look outside, you can look at what poor people are doing. The trip to Mali – that made it look like we were a group – was really based on a bunch of young people listening to their elders.

Because I think looking to what traditions do is kind of like respecting your elders. So Juhani says, you have got to go to the Dogon, then I guess you may as well pack your bags. You should just go, right? Just on faith. So it wasn’t our idea, it was his idea.

Marie:     Ending with the subject of technology (which I know is one of your favorites), we have a story for you: While we were at the Rural Studio, Bruce Lindsey accepted a position at Auburn. Sambo invited him out to the studio to give a talk about his then recently completed book called Digital Gehry. After the third or fourth angry or condescending student question, Sambo turned around, looked at us and said “Y’all have got to chill out. I don’t know anything about any of this stuff, but the world is changing and you aren’t going to be able to practice the way that I do.”

Like the Rural Studio was at that time, Ghost was fully analog, both in terms of representation and production.

Do you think the resistance to digital tool is a generational divide, or is there something truly fundamental at stake?

Brian:     Oh boy, it’s hard not to agree with Sambo. You don’t want to put you head in the sand. That doesn’t do anybody any good. I think some of the other problems that we talked about today are what Peter Buchanan describes as a kind of neurosis of the profession. He said that unfortunately the computer, the digital tools, are sometimes contributing to these problems. Like the young graduate has to be CAD monkey to get a job.

I think the computer is like a tool. It’s just a tool. Fire was a tool; fire is a tool. With fire you can cook your dinner or you can burn your house down. It’s not the tool’s fault if you burn your house down cooking dinner; it’s not the fault of fire. So the computer is a great tool, and we use it all the time in our office too.

I don’t have anything against computers. I find that I am very interested in computers, in the way they are bad simulations of the brain, and I think that artificial intelligence is something really interesting, especially when we start to talk about design. So I find the work of Bill Mitchell on “Shape Grammar” very, very interesting.

As a production tool, it just serves the production. I tell students when I give lectures (and they hate hearing it) that if you can’t draw by hand, with a pencil, upside down, in 3D, across a table, looking in the eyes of a client, live, you will never drive the bus; you’re never going to be the author. I believe that to be the case because it is a social art, architecture, and you are looking in the eyes of another person, not in a fucking screen. The real eureka moments happen there.

The computer doesn’t deal with ambiguity very well. You have to tell the computer how long the line is and how thick it is, and there is no room for “sort-of-something.” When you make a pencil line in a pencil drawing, you can leave half the drawing unfinished because you don’t know what goes there, or you can make a line have emphasis where you are clear or where you think something is important, then let it trail off. I think the computer doesn’t tolerate, yet, not being sure of things. Lack of certainty is not what the computer understands. At least not the architectural tools we have today.

I remember 30 or 35 years ago, Bill Mitchell said to me at UCLA: “Come with me, become a computer guy, because any minute now you are going to be able to sketch just like you do by hand on the computer.” And I’m so happy I didn’t go on that journey with him because I think there is only one artist that’s made even a serious attempt, the British artist, the painter, David Hockney. A tool hasn’t produced, it hasn’t happened yet. That fluidity of the hand and the brain together … you look at a violinist play the violin, a really good violinist, the brain is hard wired to the hand. Frank Lloyd Wright said “we only understand what we make.” Yeah, that’s it.



Keith Zawistowski was born in New Jersey, USA, and studied architecture at Virginia Tech. Marie Zawistowski was born in Paris, France, and studied architecture at the Ecole d’Architecture Paris Malaquais. They met at Auburn University’s Rural Studio while working as students with Architect Sambo Mockbee to design and build a charity house for Lucy Harris and her family. They later traveled together to study traditional building practices in Ghana, West Africa, and have since married, established OnSite Architecture, and joined the faculty at Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture + Design, where they co-founded and co-direct the design/buildLAB.


Keith and Marie strive to make buildings that are deeply rooted in the unique identity of people and place and which are economically, culturally, and environmentally sensitive. Their practice and their teaching have each been recognized with numerous regional, national and international awards, publications and exhibitions. 

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  1. Interview: Brian MacKay-Lyons on the State of Architectural Education and the Architect’s Role - October 22, 2014

    […] On August 22nd, 2014 Brian hopped off his tractor and wiped the diesel fuel off his hands to discuss architectural education with Keith and Marie Zawistowski, co-founders of the design/buildLAB at Virginia Tech and partners of OnSite Architecture. Here is an excerpt from their conversation, which was originally published on Inform: […]

  2. An Opportune Dialog | Sloan Springer | Architecture & Urbanism Studio - October 16, 2014

    […] See the full transcript here: Design Dialog: Brian MacKay-Lyons […]

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