When Frank Dittenhafer and his wife, Sue Ann Kline, first visited Nova Scotia in the late 1990s, they met up with a local architect acquaintance, Brian MacKay-Lyons, and immediately set off on a “quick walk” around his Upper Kingsburg farm.
It turned into a seven-mile hike through the dense forest to a high plateau overlooking the ocean and ending up on a crescent-shaped beach of rounded weathered rocks and boulders.
That evening, Frank rode with Brian past sleepy fishing villages with their clusters of brightly painted sheds, dories and piles of lobster traps, after picking wild cranberries for their Canadian Thanksgiving meal.
For more than 15 years since then, Frank, founder and principal at Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects, and his wife have been visiting that small Maritime province on the eastern edge of Canada.
They return again and again to this “authentic place” where he draws inspiration from the people, their history, their music, the landscape and the art – particularly the folk art and the simple structures woven seamlessly into the dramatic terrain.
The Nova Scotia and Canadian Maritime cultures, in general, are very strong, he says, deeply integrated into the lifestyle, values and identity of each province.
Frank and Sue Ann have made multiple visits to Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland-Labrador and New Brunswick – the neighboring provinces to Nova Scotia. While each is magical in its own unique way, the cultural and nature themes are pervasive and magnetic to the York County, Pa., couple.
“For me, it’s about where and how something is built into the land,” Frank says, “but it’s also about where they’re not built. The land in Nova Scotia is more important than the buildings.”
That sparing minimalist approach to architecture can be seen across the province.
Streets are lined with houses of simple forms with gable or shed roofs, a warm patchwork of primary colors created with paint bought from the store down the street is found on buoys and dorys that bake in the sun.
Out past clapboard or cedar shingle farmhouses, rows of crops and pastures unroll across the countryside, ending just feet from where ocean waves lap the shore.
“Historically, design and construction in Nova Scotia is all about function – responding very directly to a way of life – the climate, the terrain and to the sea. There’s nothing extra added,” Frank says. “Everything built is essential. You can feel the deep reverence people have for the land.”
You can feel, too, the respect that locals across the province have for the diverse cultures and history rooted in the 21,000-square-mile peninsula. In addition to the architecture, those traditions – French Acadian, British Loyalist, Celtic, Germanic, First Nations and more – are found and proudly expressed in the music, oral history, cuisine, and folk art scattered across the province.
In fact, if you visit the Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects’ office in York, you’ll see some of that same folk art on display in their “c o d” building – a testament to Nova Scotia’s influence on Frank’s life and his work.
More than 50 pieces of folk art from several Nova Scotia artists that Frank and Sue Ann have befriended are expressions of the joy and beauty of maritime life and of the landscape – telling stories that are composed in carved wood and paint from Canadian Tire, a local hardware and auto chain.
“It’s such a rich, diverse province, and, to me, it’s just a calming place to draw from,” he says. “A visit to Nova Scotia centers and recalibrates my design sensibilities.”
Frank’s personal architectural design philosophy, and that of his eponymous firm, avoids technological or structural gymnastics in favor of a more direct approach to providing functional and inspiring design solutions.
He believes that too often an architect in the U.S. can become distracted by the myriad of design possibilities and potential changes and complexities that he or she can incorporate into the design for a new space; the urge to tinker or to twist and contort something in a new way is always present in a creative designer’s mind – always challenging the design doctrine that “less is more.”
So, at those “tempting” times back in the states, Frank might picture a swath of coastline, a cove or countryside, 1,000-plus miles northeast of his office in York.
He thinks of rocky shores and intimate harbors where boats burble and bob; wide-open “Scottish” highlands and cliffs that stare out at the sunset; a small lighthouse on the point for the fisherman coming home.
It’s all authentic, he says. And it was beautiful long before any architects ever touched it.
These days, when Frank gives a lecture, he’ll often start his presentation by showing an image of Nova Scotia or York County farmland.
He recalls growing up in York County near Dover, across the street from an elementary school with some ballfields where the baseball diamonds were surrounded by farms with acres of cornfields stretching to the horizon as far you could see.
As a young boy, Frank marveled at those farms and the endless rows of corn that presided over the landscape. Years later, it’s still there in his mind.
Functional; efficient; deeply respectful of its surroundings: it remains a blueprint for clean, authentic, engaging architectural design.
“You’re always searching for the essence of a place,” Frank says. “And when you connect with it, it’s just incredibly inspirational.”