Nova Scotia, the peninsula of rock and scree sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean that is one of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, has produced a nest of good architecture in recent years. The godfather of the upwelling of pared-down, sculptural reinterpretations of local traditions is without a doubt Brian MacKay-Lyons, Hon. FAIA, but several designers who worked for or studied with him are now making their own, distinctive contributions. Of these, Omar Gandhi has perhaps received the most publicity, but his former associate and fellow alumni of the MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple firm Peter Braithwaite, Intl. Assoc. AIA, is also making beautiful buildings—both as a carpenter/contractor for many of his commissions and a designer.
A few weeks ago, Braithwaite showed me his work in and around the provincial capital of Halifax. First, however, he took me down to see Shobac, the compound of houses, farm buildings, and community use spaces MacKay-Lyons has created on the coast a few hours drive south of Halifax. Consisting of structures that architect built with his students at locally based Dalhousie University, historical houses and barns he moved to the site, and designs both by himself and other architects, such as the Australian Peter Stutchbury, Shobac is a loose assembly of distinctive but related forms, most of which are available for rent.
Braithwaite worked on some of these projects, and then developed his own, smaller version of that collection in Terence Bay, on the coast a bit closer to Halifax. There he established his studio in a long, wood-clad tube hovering on pylons over the site’s heather, grass, and rocks to look out toward the ocean through one completely glassed-in end. Inside, the singular volume is framed by six wood box trusses that create a space modified only by the services and a loft tucked into the rear, entrance side. Adjacent to the studio is a building that is actually two separate structures with an eccentric gabled roof. Conceptually, the single design has been cut in two, forming a working courtyard in the middle between a wood workshop and a storage space.
The third element Braithwaite designed at Terence Bay (he has plans for more cottages there, having moved into Halifax and now renting the buildings out for weekend visits) is an A-frame cabin, the first part of which was built by students at Dalhousie in a program similar to the one MacKay-Lyons started. Braithwaite extended that small structure with a kinked addition that rides over the slope, creating an expansive, but again unmodulated interior volume.
The buildings at Terence Bay set the tone for most of Braithwaite’s work. They tend to float over the land because he wants to disturb the sites as little as possible. They consist of a variety of either flat-roofed or off-kilter gabled or hipped structures clad in wood he stains a dark gray or even black (“we can’t afford the Japanese shou sugi ban technique here, so we do it with local wood and stains,” he says) or black standing seam metal. The resulting architecture is abstract, shaped to stand against the land, as do most of the traditional buildings in Nova Scotia, and offers spaces that are as clear as Braithwaite can make them. They are also beautifully fabricated by a team of craftspeople he now houses in a large workshop in Halifax’s harbor area.
The combination of the blackness and the shaped abstraction of the buildings forms them into more straightforward, but also more expressive versions of a Nova Scotia rural vernacular that is similar to New England architecture, but with a greater emphasis on verticality, the separateness of buildings, and a tautness to the forms as they stand on their usually exposed sites. Braithwaite brings a background as a carpenter, a science major who comes from a family of scientists, and an artist to his work. He is now pursuing a Ph.D. that seeks to combine biological, environmental, and architectural knowledge of sites.
Integrating a sense of craft, a love of both the human-made and the natural site and its history, and an aesthetic that tends toward sculptural forms, he has concentrated mainly on creating residential structures in the Nova Scotia countryside. A strong example is the Meet in the Middle House, situated on a meadow gently sloping down to the water on the province’s northern tip. The building consists of one stretched volume, its gabled roof dipping down to the ocean side and split in the middle by what in the American South they would call a dog trot: an open but covered porch. Studios for the husband and wife, both artists, occupy the far ends of the house, with a living area and bedrooms in the middle. A third part of the bar is a sliced-off element sitting at an angle to the main structure and containing a garage and a guest space. The clarity of the organization, the manner in which it hovers over the land and looks toward the ocean, and the simplicity of every other aspect of the building, from its details to its overall black color and uninflected interiors, gives the Meet in the Middle House its power.
By contrast, the two cabins nestled on a shared deck Braithwaite designed in Terence Bay as a weekend cottage for a Halifax family are much more compacted. The client wanted to impact the land as little as possible, leading to the cabins’ placement on thin stilts at the top of a rise from which you look out over a field of heather toward the Atlantic. Again clad in black wood, the structures are surmounted by angled roofs gesturing out to the view and hovering over bands of clerestory windows. One of the cabins contains a shared living space, the other tight and lofted sleeping areas for the family. Braithwaite crafted the compound into as tight a set of forms as he could manage.
Not all of Braithwaite’s designs are that clear, as in recent years his commissions have increased in size and scope. For another house he is designing for Terence Bay, as well as for two similar jobs further down the coast, he has broken down the scale of such structures by housing the living areas in one volume, the sleeping areas in another, each with its own eccentric gable, and then joining the two with a block that both contains the service spaces and provides entrance. He also likes to extend his roofs out beyond the enclosed volumes, pressing the buildings down to the ground visually and providing shaded areas from which to enjoy the often dramatic sites.
Braithwaite’s work is typical not just of the architecture that has appeared in Nova Scotia in the shadow of MacKay-Lyons, but also of a new generation of architects who are feeding the COVID-enhanced construction of second or even first homes on relatively remote locations in which the clients want to live in structures that are adapted to the land and as sustainable as possible (many of Braithwaite’s houses are totally or nearly completely off-the-grid). There is a group of them in the Bay Area, exemplified by firms such as Field Architecture and Feldman Architecture, but they can also be found in New England, for instance in the work of Birdseye in Vermont. I have also had the pleasure of experiencing what to me is strongly related work by the firm Irving Smith Architects in New Zealand. It is heartening to see such structures, which eschew the tendency toward McMansions and “plopitecture” in favor of beautifully crafted and sited, sculpturally shaped and simply filled-out forms. In that mode, Braithwaite’s work is among the best.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.