Text & photos—Catherine Bernier
I had heard of Shobac long before my visit, as a popular spot to rent seaside cottages designed by a famous architect. What I discovered there went well beyond my preconceptions.
On an autumn afternoon I drive from Halifax to Lunenburg — a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From there, I take country roads that ultimately lead to Upper Kingsburg, where the LaHave Estuary meets the Atlantic Ocean and Hirtle’s Beach, imparting the strong sense of having reached the end of the world.
Along the way, I pass a few cedar-shingled barns and houses standing close-knit, Acadian style. At the bend in the road, a humble sign announces Shobac. The place was named by architect Brian MacKay-Lyons, a reference to Christian Shoubach, who owned this land in the early 1600s. One final turn and I glimpse the whole expanse: from the top of a hill, I can see the work of nature and the work of the architect converge.
The reconstructed village of Shobac includes historic buildings — recovered from ruins or rescued from other villages — and modern buildings, unified in form and materials. With its traditional gable roof, the modern corten steel gatehouse sits in dialogue with the 19th-century barn and schoolhouse. At the cliff’s edge, four barn-shaped cabins and a studio function, according to the architect, as “landscape-viewing devices.” These buildings are connected by a country road to a group of private houses owned by MacKay-Lyons on the peninsula, where a fishing port once stood. An impressive pasture knits the picture into a coherent whole.
Although their shape is reminiscent of local vernacular buildings (fishing cabins), the houses on the point are resolutely modern, thanks to their resurfacing, energy-efficient modern windows, and minimalist details.
As I walk toward the shore, I wonder: how is it possible to create so many visual harmonies between past and present?
For more than 30 years the renowned architect has been cultivating the rich landscape of Shobac ethically and democratically. Many of his apprentices have had their start in architecture here, giving new life to the buildings that make up this village. In this way Shobac also serves an educational purpose: it’s a veritable laboratory for students who do a placement here. The projects he leads here, as well as those he orchestrates at his firm, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, highlight the local context: its landscapes, culture, climate, and materials.
Back in his office in Lunenburg (he also has offices in Halifax and in Boulder, Colorado), MacKay-Lyons swaps his understated architect’s garb for work clothes before meeting me in Shobac. Who knows? He might have to step into one of the sheep pens.
“It’s a crazy place; it’s not entirely clear what is going on here. It’s a farm, it’s our home, it’s a workplace. It’s a community place where architects, musicians, and other artists meet; it is a village; it is ruins. I don’t know.”
Having grown up in Arcadia, a small rural community near the town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, the architect is deeply influenced by the mix of cultures — Mi’kmaq and Acadian — that shaped the history of the region. He travelled extensively when he was a student, though, to find inspiration from various sources and to expand his vision beyond his own roots.
Brian’s projects put the landscape first, and masterfully combine traditional and modern construction techniques.
“You go around the world to find these amazing indigenous places [that are the cradle of great cultures and timeless currents]. I lived in Siena, Tuscany (for the Renaissance); Kyoto, Japan (for the landscape and traditions); and we spent a few years in LA, California (for the avant-garde).”
He remembers a book that influenced him greatly, Architecture Without Architects. It gives an introduction to community architecture, which is democratically produced through the spontaneous and continuous activity of an entire people sharing the same heritage. Shobac reflects this principle, taking the land itself as its community’s shared heritage.
For thousands of years the site of Shobac has been a summer camp for the Mi’kmaq people, who came to collect molluscs. In 1604 French explorer Samuel de Champlain came ashore here, when the place was occupied by an Acadian fishing and farming village. The village was eventually colonized by German, Swiss, and French protestants for agricultural purposes and was inhabited until the mid-20th century, when the community was abandoned. But the fishing port buildings remained until the 1970s. Between each wave of settlement, the trees gained a little more ground.
“There was nothing here when we arrived, but we could feel, smell, and taste the culture,” MacKay-Lyons recalls.
It was 1988 when he began to clear the land to recreate a farming village. But before the buildings and the animals could be added, the space had to be rethought in terms of the wind, the light, and the seasons. For MacKay-Lyons, “the house is the land.”
He invites me to visit his primary residence, the studio, where he lives with his wife, Marilyn. “When I cleared the land this was the loudest place for the ocean sounds. So we poured the concrete on a Saturday morning, and by the next Saturday, we had dinner at the kitchen table with 15 people. Someone was playing music, it was a great gathering.” A musician himself, MacKay-Lyons compares construction to jam sessions.
On the terrace, he points out how the low roof frames the view. On one side, we can see the ocean in all its immensity; on the other, the hill seems all the more impressive and steep. For MacKay-Lyons, these details have nothing to do with expensive materials. Everything here plays out timelessly, with a fluid integration of the landscape — qualities he associates with democratic architecture.
Near his house, MacKay-Lyons has restored the foundation of a fortress dating to the 1500s in order to build an open-air space. This is Marilyn’s favourite spot: both a dining area and a living room, sheltered from the elements.
The schoolhouse, an old school built in 1830, was relocated to Shobac from the town of Chebogue, near where MacKay-Lyons grew up.
Following the seasonal light, the couple live in the Chebogue schoolhouse during the winter. The old school, built in 1830, was relocated from Chebogue to Shobac and restored by the architect in 2007. His ancestors were among those who constructed the building, and he chose to honour traditional techniques in his restoration.
The octagonal barn, saved from possible demolition in the Annapolis Valley, was also moved to Shobac. MacKay-Lyons and his students rebuilt it on a new foundation, from its original pieces. A week after construction finished, a concert was held inside the barn. It’s a versatile gathering space that leaves room for the imagination. “Sometimes, it’s best to have something with no name, no functions. It’s like a wild card,” Brian explains.
As we step out of the barn, he waves to the driver of a passing tractor. We walk along a path parallel to the ocean, toward the small peninsula where the fishing port used to be. Two cows, which Brian stops to feed, follow us along. On the point, several modern buildings resembling fishing cabins stand together, as does Smith House, which is composed of three pavilions surrounded by a monumental granite staircase. The whole house, trimmed with corten steel, is perched on a stone acropolis. Several grassy areas are tucked in amongst the buildings, which catch the sun and block the wind, creating microclimates. Here, it’s the thoughtful placement of houses that creates the road, and not the road that dictates their placement.
For MacKay-Lyons, simple but carefully arranged buildings can compose a complex whole. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, another democratic principle in action.
“The air between buildings and the light is free, right? So it’s more about that. Aretha Franklin, that was her thing: her sense of timing makes her music. It’s not the notes, it’s the space between the notes.”
Brian MacKay-Lyons built his career around rhythm, creating timeless works — marks of respect for the land, but also for the people who came before. Today in Shobac, molluscs are still gathered on the beach, the livestock bask in stately calm in the pastures, kitchen parties go on in fine Acadian tradition, and ruins are transformed into refuges for inhabitants and visitors. The scattered notes of the past have been strung together by the architect, forming a lush, well-tuned melody.
Freelance writer and photographer Catherine Bernier also holds degrees in counselling psychology and teaching meditation. She uses her creativity to awaken people to self-awareness, on both the collective and the environmental levels. Originally from Sainte-Flavie, Gaspésie, she has a special relationship with the ocean and the vast wilderness that has shaped her relationship to photography. Her refuge, an off-grid cabin in Nova Scotia, allows her to align her values with her passion: surfing!