September 1, 2003
by Michael Carroll
Tilting: House Launching, Slide Hauling, Potato Trenching, and Other Tales from a Newfoundland Fishing Village. Robert Mellin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003.
Inside Canada, outside Quebec, Newfoundland remains a cultural hotspot with its distinct dialect, humour and way of life. Robert Mellin’s book adds to the island’s cultural riches by carefully describing through words and drawings the traditional architecture of its outports. This is not a general survey but a specific study of the village of Tilting, itself a microcosm of Newfoundland, complete with its own island, ‘The Rock’, in the middle of its harbour. Tilting is one of eleven communities on Fogo Island situated eight miles off Newfoundland’s northeastern coast. Fogo comes from the Portuguese “fuego” for fire. An appropriate name given that the landscape seems like it has been swept clean by fire, hence the old navigator’s name Fuego or Fire Island. As Mellin observes, the lack of trees heightens one’s awareness of Fogo Island’s architecture.
Maybe due to its isolation and hardiness, Tilting is one of the last Newfoundland outports where you can view the full range of vernacular buildings associated with the family-based inshore fishery. Throughout the book it is clear that Mellin is a careful observer who has visited every house in Tilting since his arrival in 1987. Initially known as the ‘stranger’, he was soon addressed by his first name. When he is not there, he maintains an architectural practice in St. John’s and pursues an academic career at McGill University’s School of Architecture.
The book is divided into eight chapters. It opens as if you are a visitor from ‘away’ approaching the island by air. Mellin sketches a three hour walking tour of the local environs in and around the village of Tilting. Then he guides us inside the houses (there is no need to knock on doors). We are delighted by the whimsical designs of the homemade furniture and rugs, and are offered a cup of tea while listening to the local stories. Threaded throughout the book are excerpts of these local tales told by Ted Burke, Jim Greene, Ben Foley and Rose Burke (just to mention a few).
Led outside the main house, we are shown an array of outbuildings–the ‘store’, the milk house, the outhouse, and the fishing stages. These structures are, more often than not, built on stilts and imbued with a temporary quality. It is speculated ‘Tilting’ itself is derived from the word ’tilts’–temporary wooden structures, constructed by migratory fishers before permanent settlements were established. It is fitting that these outbuildings and indeed the main houses were periodically moved or ‘launched’. One of Mellin’s wonderful drawings documents these movements, and the result is a map overlaid with a tangle of lines like a constellation of stars overhead.
Mellin has encapsulated the essence of Newfoundland’s outport just in time, as split-level bungalows level this rich cultural landscape. The book ends with a plea to recognize the value of Tilting’s architectural heritage. Indeed, he argues for a sensitive and piece-meal strategy that maintains this tough yet fragile village. In the face of urbanization and the international economy, we are offered an alternative world vision, one that demands that we slow down and look closer at the marginal and the local in order to strengthen our cultural diversity. In this case, his study lays the foundation for the ‘reconstruction’ of an historical outport that continually ‘re-founds’ a new-found-land.