Peripheral Vision

PROJECT Fogo Island Artists’ Studios, Fogo Island, Newfoundland
ARCHITECT Saunders Architecture in association with Sheppard Case Architects Inc.
TEXT Trevor Boddy
Photos Bent René Synnevåg

It is beyond question that Saunders Architecture’s studio pavilions for artists have been terrific successes as branding for Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Arts Corporation (Arts Corp). Before the first artist had taken up temporary occupation in this string of stark structures overlooking the North Atlantic, photographs of them had appeared in magazines and newspapers far and wide. With their boldly framed views of rocks and surf, their contemporary abstractions of traditional fishing stages, their black and grey trapezoidal forms framed in wood, the Fogo artists’ studios came to define an institution before it had been fully formed. Their architecture speaks of reconciling the avant garde with the folkloric, a defiantly local romanticism at ease with more universal arguments. These first Fogo images also captured the sense of a Newfoundland renewed as it found its latent strengths, and bolstered by oil wealth, crossed the symbolic line from a “have not” to a “have” province. As devices of optical inquiry into the nature of landscape, these creations by Norway-based Canadian architect Todd Saunders are as invigorating as a salt wind sharpened by icebergs floating offshore. 

But buildings are not logos. Or rather, buildings have too often been reduced to logos, especially for the art world, but this does not mean that the practical obligations for places of creative work cease to matter. Now that these structures are inhabited–used by artists as working studios–the Fogo Island story is a great deal more complicated, the results more nuanced, even while recognizing the formal and tectonic power of the architecture. I had the rare opportunity to push past their imagistic treatment to date by virtue of a small conference that brought together current, past and potential artists using the Fogo studios to talk about the production of art in remote places. Artists have Fogo residencies ranging from a few days to a few months in the studios, which are reserved for their creative work, while each is also assigned a comfortably restored typical Newfoundland outport house for sleeping and eating. The Long Studio–the first of the studios to be completed–is also the largest and in many ways the most successful. Since this studio has already been reviewed by Michael Carroll (see CA, September 2010), I will concentrate on the newer constructions. I got to visit the studios at all times of the day and in all modes of weather, talked to the inhabitants about their usability as working studios, and saw them in action as packed-out social spaces for openings and parties. 

Squish Studio

The Saunders website has a single image of the interior of the Squish Studio. The image features a barefoot Bohemian sitting on a ledge of one of the studio’s carefully composed built-ins. Freshly painted during the last stages of construction, the gleaming white studio has absolutely no other signs of inhabitation other than a raging fire in the glass-fronted stove. Of course, reality plays out differently from this imagistic fantasy. Even with the fire raging, this room is drafty, and artists I encountered there grumbled about depositing their boots at the door to maintain the fiction of pure white-painted floors in a working studio. Courtesy of those built-ins and a compact galley kitchen, this is actually one of the more practical studios. Some of the many senses of “squish” here are the forced perspective of its walls and its framing of views, with side walls at both entrance and window ends extending out to emphatically direct vision. But it does not take long for all this framing to feel heavy-handed, the boxed-out visuals seeming like an extra-large flat screen that cannot be turned off (the studios are without curtains, shutters, blinds or any other devices to temper this tyranny of opticality). The Squish Studio floats above the landscape (a frequent massing device for Saunders), but it also floats above the daily grind of a working studio.

Bridge Studio

Bridges are necessarily linearly directional forms, a constructed necessity to get from point A to point B or vice versa, usually over water. But directionality in a studio space can be relentless. One takes a short bridge to reach this studio adjacent to an inland pond, and the studio is itself a bridge between land and sky, with an upward tilt to its massing. Additionally, once inside, a few stairs must be negotiated to reach the work area. Architectural decisions like these accumulate to mean there is exactly one place to sit comfortably in this studio, and exactly one view available. Would a side window have utterly compromised the parti pris of the bridge, distracted from the purity of form? The artist from Asia assigned this studio when I was there had only visited it a half-dozen times during a month-long residency, getting more done in his well-heated, WiFi-equipped (most studios have no internet access, a crucial absence for 21st-century visual artists) restored house in town. The Bridge has a cozier working environment than the Squish Studio, and its linearity and single-minded directionality seem to create a better space for narrative and time-based media than for the inevitable spatiality of the plastic arts. Besides, it boasts wonderful flank-ing tables to array research notes and drafts of texts.

Tower Studio

The most awkward Fogo studio for work and occupation is the tower. Not a straight vertical form, the tower jumps over in plan as it rises, then squinches at transition points accommodating either skylights or grey-painted soffits, in contrast with the black used for all other exterior walls. This studio was being used by a husband-and-wife writer/video artist team during my visit. Because access to the second floor and the roof deck (and its sublime vistas) is achieved solely by a wall-mounted vertical ladder, the female of the pair had never visited any level other than the ground floor during her residency. Unfortunately, there is no window at eye level on this level of the studio; however, there is an immense skylight on the second level through which light pours, requiring its residents to rig a blanket as improvised solar control. Top light is fine for a painting studio, but the room’s size and appointments make this difficult. With so many levels above this vexed workroom, it is also slow and difficult to heat, so cold in June that these artists also eventually retreated to their restored salt-box residence.

Conclusion: Studio Ideal and Studio Reality

Canada has another collection of architecturally ambitious studios in a raw natural setting for use by visiting artists. The late-1970s Leighton Colony at the Banff Centre features stand-alone studios of similar sizes to those at Fogo Island–designed by an array of architects including Ron Thom, Richard Henriquez, Douglas Cardinal and Fred Valentine. The Leighton’s architectural zoo (one studio by each Late Modernist species native to Canada) has its own quirks and inadequacies too, but generally, the studios are more successful as working spaces. This is because they are set in a forest and are inward-looking, without the pressure Saunders faced in reconciling short- and long-distance views to and from his creations perched so self-consciously on the primal, wave-swept rocks and fields of his native Newfoundland. This is the irony of Saunders at Fogo: the optical and imagistic agendas of his studios conspire to make them less useful as working spaces for visual artists. 

Non-artists are often surpr
ised at the roughness or banality of the studios where even the most prominent artists shape their creations, in the same way non-architects feel a disconnect when they visit our lodgings and sit on the furniture we can afford. Precisely because so many architects are failed or wannabe visual artists, we are more likely to let arty form-making confound the practical functional needs of art galleries, and it seems, studios for visiting artists. We spin the visual delight for these building types when what is really required is a little more everyday commodity and firmness. 

But there is good design news from Saunders Architecture’s atelier. Now rising on a prominent site on the island is the 29-room Fogo Island Inn he has designed for Arts Corp’s sister entity, the Shorefast Foundation. In plan, the splayed wings of the hotel form an X, opening up to the landscape without being consumed by it. The guest rooms and the spa are single-loaded on the second and third floors, with framed views of sea and shore. A restaurant, gallery and other public spaces inhabit the ground floor with a section left as a covered porch set with multi-angled columns, a spectacular framing device that makes arrival at the Fogo Island Inn as dramatic as the landscape. 

Indulgence in the optical–the cult of the view–is perfect for a luxury hotel in a remote natural setting. The “work” here is enjoying the vistas and getting a sense of the place, and Saunders gets this right, as did Chris Rowe’s architecture (though not the interiors, which were designed by others) for Cannon Design at the similar Sparkling Hill Resort outside Vernon, BC. While the Vernon spa is set at mountaintop rock level, at Fogo Island it is at roof level. Saunders has incorporated his trademark flanking roof and wall frames here, which will protect the saunas and open hot tub from the wind. Gazing past the granite shores towards the icebergs, there may be no better place for the world to come to understand our idea of the North. As Saunders has designed a number of superb villas and interpretive centres in his adopted home of Norway, it’s high time he got a larger Canadian commission to prove that his is a major talent. CA

Trevor Boddy’s essay “Mega + Micro” on the last decade of Canadian architecture (portions of which have previously appeared in Canadian Architect) received second place for the Pierre Vago Award for best architectural criticism published worldwide 2008-2011 at the Tokyo UIA World Congress of Architecture.

Client Shorefast Foundation and the Fogo Island Arts Corporation
Architect Team Attila Béres, Ryan Jørgensen, Ken Beheim-Schwarzbach, Nick Herder, Rubén Sáez López, Soizic Bernard, Colin Hertberger, Christina Mayer, Olivier Bourgeois, Pål Storsveen, Zdenek Dohnalek
Structural DBA Associates (Long Studio)
Services Engineering Core Engineering (Long Studio)
Builder Shorefast Foundation
Construction Supervisor Dave Torraville
Construction Team Arthur Payne, Rodney Osmond, Edward Waterman, Germain Adams, John Penton, Jack Lynch, Roy Jacobs, Clarke Reddick
Area 130 M2 (Long Studio), 30 M2 (Squish Studio); 50 M2 (Tower Studio); 30 M2 (Bridge Studio)
Budget withheld
Completion 2010-2011