MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Limited

More than a “one-hit-wonder” in architectural design excellence.
By Leah Kellar

MacKay Lyons Sweetapple Architects

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From designing projects in Dhaka, Bangladesh to  Halifax, Nova Scotia, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Limited has made a name for itself locally and internationally in architecture and design service excellence pertaining to cultural, academic and private residential projects.

With more than 100 awards received over the course of three decades that attest to the company’s reputation for a solid body of work, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple is certainly no “one-hit-wonder” in the architecture and design service industry. The firm has received six Governor General’s Medals and two American Institute of Architects Honours Awards, in addition among the most recent recognitions is the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) Firm Award. The award is presented to a firm who demonstrates a consistent body of work and design excellence.

“To be recognized by the RAIC, which is our peers, is one of the best recognitions one can receive. We treat our whole practice as a body of work. It’s not just about trying to design a one-hit-wonder,” said company partner and architect, Talbot Sweetapple, about this year’s recognition.

The body of work that MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple has managed to achieve is consistent and often stunning, to say the least.  The company’s extensive portfolio of cultural, academic and residential projects that can be viewed online at: speaks for itself.  The company based in Halifax, Nova Scotia is comprised of two partners, that of its namesake—Brian MacKay-Lyons and Talbot Sweetapple— one senior associate and two associates. The firm has 18 employees. When original partner, Mackay-Lyons, founded the company 35 years ago, he may not have imaged the magnitude of the projects he would complete with fellow colleague and architect, Sweetapple, who joined as a company partner in 2005. As they say, ‘time flies when you’re having fun’. And it has—three decades later MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple has completed hundreds of local and international projects of supreme quality and aesthetic wonder. The firm’s work has been featured internationally in more than 300 publications and exhibitions.

Founder and company partner, Brian MacKay-Lyons was Sweetapple’s professor at the School of Architecture at Dalhousie University prior to 2005 and a business partnership was later struck as both discovered they shared many common belief systems, similar inspirations in the field, and the same values of quality, style and commitment to excellence in architectural design. Sweetapple later became an Adjunct Professor in 1997 at Dalhousie University’s School of Architecture and he is now a Professor of Practice as of last year. MacKay-Lyons, has also been active at Dalhousie University as a full professor for the past 30 years. Both professional scholars have also given more than 200 public lectures on their architectural and design work worldwide.

In the beginning of his career Sweetapple completed a work term in Berlin and another for a Japanese architectural company for eight months before graduating and working for KPMB Architects, one of Canada’s lead architectural studios founded in 1987 in Toronto. That experience inspired his interest in public scale architecture. One day he received a call from his former professor asking him if he could return to Halifax to work on the Computer Science building at Dalhousie.

At a young age relatively fresh out of Architectural school it was a great opportunity.

“I was 27 years old, so it was a major responsibility of a large building of 60, 000 square-feet,” recalls Sweetapple. “I had a lot of support our partnership firm Fowler Bauld and Mitchell, but from a design point of view I was right in there everyday. It was an amazing experience as a young architect to work with Brian on such an important project.”

The company partnership was struck between Sweetapple and MacKay-Lyons soon after, which was great for a young architect Post-secondary facilities became one of his specialties. From academic buildings they started moving into massive cultural projects such as the Canadian Chancery and Residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh, museums, and a few privately run art galleries. Presently the firm is working on an art gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

The most monumental milestone project the firm has completed to date according to Sweetapple has to be the Canadian Chancery and Residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh. And perhaps the most extensive, it was an eight-year long process. The firm had a responsibility to be consistent in the architectural structure and design of the project to reflect Canada’s domestic policy of multiculturalism, in other words to represent the ‘guest’ country and to show respect for the culture of the ‘host’ country. MacKay-Lyons and Sweetapple applied one of their main philosophies in dealing with the challenge that required a regional approach to architecture. This means incorporating a design that respects and accommodates aspects of place such as the local climate, geography, political scene and local building culture.

Founding partner, Brian MacKay-Lyons feels that the architecture of the firm is directly related to respect for the place and the community.

“Connected to an architecture of place is respect for tradition, or cultural heritage.  While deeply rooted in the idea of place (which in itself is culturally transferable) the architecture of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects is absolutely modern – the more ancient the work, the more modern.” Mackay-Lyons said.

“We immersed ourselves into that culture of place and culture of building to make the building relate to Bangladesh,” said Sweetapple.

For example, the firm made use of brick for a beautiful courtyard scheme because brick is so popular in the architectural culture of Bangledesh. The courtyard was actually on a mound to protect against flooding conditions. Understanding water flow and the natural distribution cycle was critical.

“There’s no other culture really more extremely different to ours,”  said Sweetapple.

The project certainly wasn’t an easy task in a country of extremes—a hot climate with monsoon rains that can leave as much as 90 per cent of the country under water. The country has one of the densest populations on earth and it is one of the poorest nations. The whole building was designed around preparing for rain, heat and floods incorporating canopies for dealing with rain and drainage systems on the grounds. “It was kind of a great project that way. It took a lot of effort to get it working with our partner firm RDH Architects in Toronto. It was a great collaboration,” said Sweetapple.

That being said, sometimes the project was not without its jurisdictional challenges. He also notes that working with the local government there at times was “interesting,” in terms of issues of corruption and legal red tape to wade through in the process. In spite of it all, Sweetapple and MacKay-Lyons can agree that it was definitely a highlight of their careers.

They are thankful to have many partnerships to make projects a reality locally and internationally such as RDH Architects in Toronto who collaborated with MacKay-Lions Sweetapple in Bangladesh.

Both architects observe many differences in architecture in Canada from province to province. Without sounding rude, Sweetapple notes that some areas particularly in the Maritimes could stand to have an architectural facelift.

“The economy along with cultural values pushes us to build cheaply we’re not investing in a culture in these areas, from a design and architectural point of view,” he said.

However he mentions that the economy in Newfoundland is particularly good and there is growth happening there and in Nova Scotia.

“It is really hard to comment because the Maritimes are so diverse, but culturally I will say that we should design and build better buildings. The status quo has seemed to be good enough for the Maritimes in many parts,” said Sweetapple noting that the firm would love to work on more projects throughout the region.

Right now, Sweetapple says, the firm is moving into the next thirty years and is hopefully in a great position to take a look at specific projects with cultural public significance.

“We’re okay in the Maritimes, we love it here. We’d love to do more university buildings and more cultural buildings,” he said.

Presently MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple is branching out into these kinds of culturally diverse projects such as cultural landscapes like regional wineries and distilleries, commercial tourism and eco-tourism. Recently they completed a master plan for La Massif de Charlevoix ski resort in Quebec and a large golf course in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Always looking to the next horizon in 2014 from one point on the globe in Halifax to the other, one has to wonder what will be next on the drawing table for MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects.