Rock Star

PROJECT Fogo Island Studios, Fogo Island, Newfoundland
ARCHITECTS Saunders Architecture with Sheppard Case Architects
TEXT Michael Carroll
PHOTOS Bent Ren Synnevg

Fogo Island, located on the northeast coast of Newfoundland, supports a dwindling population of 3,000 inhabitants whose livelihoods have been challenged by a diminished fishery and lack of financial investment. This raw yet poetic place, at its most dramatic, appears as an alien windswept landscape, comprised of stark boulders that sit on extensive outcroppings of granite bedrock that rise above Fogo’s thin layer of soil and lichens. It is a place of stunning beauty and the setting for an exciting sociological and economic experiment in which architecture, as a vital component within the fabrication of culture and the identity of place, plays a central role.

An essential element of any inspiring architectural project is an inspired client–in this case, Zita Cobb, a native of Fogo Island and president of the Shorefast Foundation (, a Canadian registered charity, and its offspring, the Fogo Island Arts Corporation ( Cobb, who made her fortune in the dot-com boom, has invested $6 million of her own money in the project, matched by two contributions of $5 million from the federal and provincial governments respectively. With a total budget of $16 million, the objective of this experiment is to nurture an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit in order to create a series of sustainable businesses founded upon the rich histories and the inherent potential of Fogo Island and neighbouring Change Islands. These businesses will help diversify the local economies and create a geo-tourism destination for travellers who are attracted to and inspired by the qualities of a place that lies at the edge of the North American continent.

Architecturally, the project calls for the renovation–and in some cases the restoration–of a number of existing “salt-box” houses and deconsecrated churches. The project’s overall vision does pay homage to the regional vernacular, as documented in Robert Mellin’s book Tilting: House Launching, Slide Hauling, Potato Trenching, and Other Tales from a Newfoundland Fishing Village. However, it also engages the transformative power of contemporary architectural design with the new construction of a five-star, 29-room inn and a series of studios for an arts residency program that is designed to attract an international roster of contemporary artists and designers. Both the hotel and the studio projects were designed by Saunders Architecture, founded by Todd Saunders, a graduate of McGill University’s School of Architecture who was born in Gander, Newfoundland and has been based in the coastal city of Bergen, Norway since 1997. Jim Case of Sheppard Case Architects in St. John’s made Saunders’s design concept a reality through his efforts in coordinating the project’s various consultants and local tradespeople.

On June 2, 2010, near Joe Batt’s Arm, the Fogo Island Arts Corporation officially opened the Long Studio, an elongated and slightly distorted box that measures just over 100 feet in length and about 18 feet in width. Although this solitary, off-the-grid building is firmly grounded by a concrete foundation at its western end, the 1,200-square-foot studio gradually takes flight, as it begins to hover on a series of slits that lifts the tube-like structure above the ground to frame a view of the North Atlantic Ocean that periodically includes icebergs originating from the glaciers of Greenland.

Saunders, as an insider to the Newfoundland psyche, has also brought an outsider’s design sensibility to the Long Studio in a fresh approach rooted in his astute observations and memories of this place. As a result, the project seems strangely familiar. It fits the landscape, as the studio’s form seems to trace the gentle slope of the bedrock, and the project’s south elevation, an uninterrupted 100-foot-long wall of black-stained rough-sawn pine planks, rises towards the sea. The project’s robust architectural character certainly resonates with the sensibility of this place. Yet the Long Studio in its abstraction and detachment is also an alien objectile. It has a dual character as a viewing device that frames the landscape, the sea or a cloud overhead, but also as an introverted place of repose for the artistic soul–a well-insulated industrial object designed to weather any storm.

As a further study of contrasts, all the exterior surfaces of the studio are clad with pre-finished rough-sawn pine planks stained black to counter the interior that is lined entirely with smooth wood planks painted white. A three-foot-wide “servant zone” to the left of the entry area is filled with mechanical equipment, storage areas, a water tank, a compost toilet, a sink, a shower, a kitchenette, an eating area, a wood-burning stove, and a ladder that leads to an elevated sleeping loft for the occasional overnight stay. The overall tube-like structure, clipped at both ends at a 45-degree angle, forms a parallelogram in which an angular geometry ricochets throughout its length. Saunders has carefully choreographed a sequence of events that responds to the seasons during which the studios will be used–spring, summer and fall. It begins with a covered exterior entry area that provides a degree of shelter from the rain and wind. This entry zone then mutates into an exposed exterior patio–a notch in an otherwise uninterrupted black box–that faces south to capture the sun. The last zone is a fully enclosed insulated workspace, designed to filter light and to direct views.

Upon entering the studio’s interior, one is immediately struck by the drama of an elongated space that is further delineated by the horizontal lines of the white pine planks and flat countertops of the kitchenette and work area. A large triangular skylight, screened by the exposed timber framing below it, provides ample toplighting that reduces the need for extensive electrical lighting (and larger arrays of photovoltaic panels), and which provides full-colour rendition for the work produced by visiting artists and designers. The Long Studio terminates with a large glass window that hovers above the horizon–a lookout from which to watch the weather change throughout the day and season. In this hollow box that filters its environment, one can imagine, in the dead of night, the slight creak of the elevated structure as it moves slightly in response to the powerful winds that ride the North Atlantic, or the slight taste of the salt once the studio’s operable windows are opened and the ocean breeze flows through on a warm afternoon in July.

As mentioned earlier, the Long Studio is the first of several studios that Saunders has designed with the support of Case. The second project, currently under construction, is located at the end of Shoal Bay. Entitled Tower Studio, this sculpted black box is grounded to its site but shifts and twists as it ascends skyward. Some of its triangulated surfaces help mark and partially shelter the entry area, while another faceted surface is a skylight that allows natural light to filter into the studio’s white interior. The Tower Studio features a rooftop terrace with sweeping views of the ocean and rocky coastline.

Construction has also started on the Fogo Island Inn, and its basic massing consists of two intersecting rectangular forms. The lower volume stretches from east to west, housing the entry and lobby area, a restaurant that features local organic fare, an art gallery, conference rooms and a cinema. The upper rectangular box sits 30 degrees relative to its base, and it contains 29 well-appointed suites, along with an extensive spa that opens onto the Inn’s expansive rooftop. This volume also cantilevers 60 feet towards the southwest over the site
‘s rocky terrain. It is supported by a forest of 30-foot-high columns that echo the slits once used in the construction of cod-drying flakes and fishing stages typical in many Newfoundland outports.

Beyond the individual projects, Zita Cobb, Elisabet Gunnarsdottir–Director of the Fogo Island Arts Corporation, Jim Case, and Todd Saunders are invested in answering the question formulated by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur some 40 years ago: “…how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization.”

Unlike Kenneth Frampton’s seminal 1983 essay, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” perhaps the direction of the Fogo Island projects is more adventurous in its tone. Maybe it harks back to the initial conception of critical regionalism formulated by Alex Tzonis and Liliane Lefaivre that favours a more radical approach: one does not draw directly from the immediate context, but takes elements, strips them of their traditional meaning, and then reassembles these elements in strange and unfamiliar ways.

As Saunders has proposed, maybe these few projects sited on the margins of Fogo Island are a hint of a “new” Newfoundland architecture and culture, one that engages difference, uses the advances of communication technology to work globally, and challenges static notions about Newfoundland identity held by the status quo, government bureaucrats and tourism officials. Culture is always a moving target that constantly needs to be redefined through a region’s cultural production, and this includes architecture. Hopefully, these inspired projects initiated by the Shorefast Foundation and the Fogo Island Arts Corporation are the beginning of something truly remarkable not only for Newfoundland and Canada, but for cultures worldwide that have suffered through the process of global industrialization, and consequently, a loss of place and cultural identity arising from the devaluation of the inherent self-worth of its citizens. CA

Born in Newfoundland, Michael Carroll is a partner in the Montreal design firm atelier BUILD. He is based in Atlanta and is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Southern Polytechnic State University.

Client Shorefast Foundation and The Fogo Island Arts Corporation
Architect Team Todd Saunders, Ryan Jrgensen, Attila Bers, Colin Hertberger, Cristina Maier, Olivier Bourgeois, Pl Storsveen, Nick Herder
On-site Supervisor Dave Torraville
Builders Arthur Payne and Edward Waterman
Structural DBA Consulting Engineers
Mechanical/Electrical Core Engineering Inc.
Area 200 m2
Budget $16 M
Completion Long Studio–June 2010; Tower Studio–July 2011