Building on the Rock
TEXT Jacob Allderdice
Newfoundland and Labrador is perhaps the hardest province in Canada in which to practice architecture. Farley Mowat’s description of the place bears repeating: “Settlements had to withstand such ferocity of wind and water that the buildings were sometimes bound to the rocks with ring bolts and iron cables.” Besides the climate, the workforce—long subject to economic forces that pull it away to greener pastures—is expensive, and materials hard to come by. Today, resource extraction and industrial development have created a surge in new home construction together with new schools, office buildings, roads and parking lots. As a result of this demand, construction has become even more costly.
Traditionally, architecture was not a celebrated art form in Newfoundland. The former colony’s British overlords considered the island a summer fishing station, and permanent construction was discouraged or outlawed for centuries following its establishment in 1497. It’s said the winding roads of St. John’s owe their charm to the fact that much of the land was owned by absentee landlords, who could not be contacted to give up property for a proper street grid.
In the outports, a strong material culture nonetheless developed, perhaps from necessity—commodities were scarce and ingenuity a virtue. While these communities may not have had architects, they had builders who learned by trial and error how to make a lasting structure in the harsh climate. Farley Mowat writes: “The houses stood as square as blocks of basalt. They are so strong that they can be levered off their foundation posts, trundled to the water’s edge, set afloat and towed miles across open water to be hauled up on shore at a new site.”
Mowat may be romanticizing the builder’s craft, but he had no love for what Confederation with Canada, post-1949, wrought on outport culture. He saw people turned wage slave, out of touch with their roots. Within Burgeo, for example, where a new factory was established, “Men built hurriedly and, contrary to their wont, many built badly…all too many of those who had been forced or deluded into abandoning comfortable and well-built houses in the now-deserted outports were reduced to living in unsightly shacks.”
To mainlanders today, the phrase “Newfoundland architecture” may call up images of Tilting, the outport documented and in part restored by architect and historian Robert Mellin, FRAIC. Many more will know the tropical-hued clapboard houses marching up the steep streets of St. John’s, with the great bulk of The Rooms—the 2001 storehouse by St. John’s architect Philip Pratt, MRAIC, for the city’s art gallery, history museum and provincial archives—vying for pride of place with the 1850s Roman Catholic Basilica on the skyline.
The other image stamped on Canadians’ minds is the Fogo Island Inn, commissioned by Newfoundlander Zita Cobb’s Shorefast Foundation and designed by Gander-born, Norwegian-based architect Todd Saunders with architect of record Sheppard Case Architects Inc., led by principal Jim Case, MRAIC, (see CA, November 2013).
It’s worth chatting with Case to understand some of the difficulties that had to be overcome to achieve Saunders’ vision: “You had to meet the National Building Code for non-combustibility, durability and acoustic separations in a four-storey wood-clad building, just metres from the North Atlantic.”
Case’s long career (he graduated from Dalhousie in 1981) is today in full bloom. His new firm, Lat49, is working on four recreation centres in Labrador, and has just completed a 12-storey St. John’s office building clad partly in orange-toned wood-grained Prodema siding. His new Reddy Kilowatt Credit Union building, also in St. John’s, is a staid Miesian box intersecting an upturned A-frame—a form that allows the building to include a drive-through while negotiating a steeply sloping site.
Case’s diverse work typifies a new architectural energy in Newfoundland, as it moves from being a “have not” to a “have” province. Still, the roll of licensed architects in the province is heavily skewed toward folks with out-of-province addresses. Of 127 full members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Architects (NLAA), just 42 live on the island. These include many native-born Newfoundlanders, as well as quite a few who came for work and who have fallen in love with the place. As the saying goes, “Complaints is many and various, but the odd divil likes it.”
Consider architect Stephen Wiseman, a restoration expert, who moved to Newfoundland from Kentucky and Michigan in 2008, drawn by offers from multinational engineering firms. Today, he’s established a solo practice—with his own century house on the “Irish Loop” south of St. John’s as a calling card. The dwelling demonstrates a standard outport typology, with a root cellar and two ancillary sheds spiralled across the property. Wiseman’s restoration included locally milled back-primed Cottle’s Island black spruce clapboards, and US-made stainless steel ring-shank nails. With cable and turnbuckle used for guardrails that preserve the ocean view, and painted traditional colours of dory green and buff, it’s a marriage of modern and ancient methods: Mowat would have been proud.
The meeting of modern and traditional elements also features prominently in the inaugural Lieutenant-Governor’s Awards of Merit in Architecture, handed out this January on behalf of the NLAA. The entries demonstrate an active architectural community and a wide variety of work, with projects from across the island plus Labrador presented to the jury. Each of the three winning projects is a residential piece in the St. John’s region—private houses by Peter Blackie and Robert Mellin, and a multi-unit adaptive reuse by Ron Fougere, MRAIC.
Peter Blackie’s house is conceptually an outport dwelling brought to the city, with the traditional outbuildings pulled in close and reattached as “sheds” on the main house. The residence features large windows oriented to the sun, together with heated floors and a thick service wall on the north. Blackie, formerly the art director of the TV show Republic of Doyle and a man who understands the power of the image, is today helming a project to build an eco-resort in Newfoundland actor Shaun Majumder’s hometown of Burlington.
Robert Mellin has a longstanding architectural practice in St. John’s, where he has lived since moving to Newfoundland in 1974. Today he teaches architecture full-time at McGill University and manages his St. John’s office part-time. Mellin refers to himself as a “practice-based researcher”—that is, he uses his architectural practice to advance and explore ideas around the subject of built culture. His Lieutenant-Governor’s Award was for the Texmo-Storey residence in St. Phillips, a short drive outside St. John’s. This residence features a wraparound veranda that capitalizes on the view as well as making the most of passive solar gain, plus a heat pump for further energy efficiency. He speaks enthusiastically about the contributions of his contractor, Keith Piercey, and his client, the late Del Texmo, a well-known St. John’s entrepreneur and designer.
The third project to win an Award of Merit is the Lilly, a former St. John’s storage building converted into a residence for at-risk youth. The architect, Ron Fougere, is a Nova Scotia-born Dalhousie graduate who has practiced in St. John’s since a university work term in 1981. The design is notable for its inclusion of a range of spaces with varying levels of privacy, allowing residents to engage in community life as desired. Fougere carefully managed dialogue with the surrounding community, using charrettes to overcome NIMBY fears and to achieve a sense of ownership among nearby residents.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s architectural scene is fertile, even while dominated by a few well-established firms. How does one discover the newer, fresher ideas? The Lieutenant-Governor’s Award is one way; another is the Canadian Architect awards. This past year, only one Newfoundland firm submitted work to this magazine’s awards program: Woodford Sheppard Architecture.
Chris Woodford, MRAIC, is the firm’s licensed architect, a Goulds native and 2001 Dalhousie graduate who previously worked with Todd Saunders in Norway. These days, he is hopeful that a sparkling new scheme for a corporate campus in the town of Paradise—which has received zoning approval—will get off the boards. The project proposes a new ecological preserve of wetland bog at the centre of a curved, partially underground building, with a skewed and cantilevered tower in the background. What makes this scheme remarkable is its setting: Paradise, the fastest-growing municipality in Atlantic Canada. The contemporary proposal is a striking contrast from a previously considered scheme—a development that Woodford likens to a cul-de-sac subdivision, planned around a central parking lot.
An observer of the scene in Newfoundland and Labrador might be excused for being puzzled about the exuberance of some aspects of the profession set side-to-side with the conservatism of other aspects. If, as Mowat conjectured, the people of the province are natural builders of homes that meet the Vitruvian standards of “firmness, commodity and delight,” what does it say that two of three Lieutenant-Governor’s Award winners were born out of province? Why only one applicant for a Canadian Architect award? Where is the natural talent of the people?
One might begin by asking a different question: what course of action is available for a Newfoundlander or Labradorian with a natural bent toward design? The answer: it’s complicated.
At the western end of Newfoundland, Memorial University’s Corner Brook campus offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Elsewhere, Toronto firm ERA Architects has worked with Ryerson University and Dalhousie to offer students the opportunity to spend time in Newfoundland outports. The Shorefast Foundation has a grant program in place for artists to develop work on Fogo Island.
But the fact is, Newfoundland and Labrador offers no training in architecture. “Newfoundlanders are very smart people, but are not prepared for the needs of architecture school,” says Dalhousie architecture professor and Gander native Talbot Sweetapple, MRAIC, of Halifax firm MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects. He has recently been in talks with architects and interns to see what can be done to improve the quality of Newfoundland students’ portfolios.
Perhaps what is yet needed in the province is a pre-architecture studio option at Memorial University, one that will show the province’s citizenry a way forward—or backward—to a time when the “culture of making” included the creation of sturdy dwellings that exhibited exuberance and restraint in equal measure. Says Sweetapple, “This would be a remarkable—and much-desired—development.”
Jacob Allderdice, MRAIC, is an architect, writer and educator currently based in Toronto.