X Marks the Spot

PROJECT Fogo Island Inn, Fogo Island, Newfoundland
ARCHITECTS Saunders Architecture with Sheppard Case Architects Inc (architect of record)
TEXT Michael Carroll
PHOTOS Alex Fradkin unless otherwise noted

It is an interesting fact that Fogo Island, once deemed to be one of the four corners of the world by the Flat Earth Society, is the location of an ambitious series of architectural projects whose stated objective is to resist the “flattening” of our shared cultural landscape. The newest addition to the roster is the Fogo Island Inn. The projects on Fogo Island (CA, September 2010 and June 2012) began with a vision for the community by Zita Cobb, who together with her brothers created the Shorefast Foundation. The non-profit envisaged a sustainable future for Fogo Island through developing the area as an art and eco-tourism destination.

Although the Fogo Island Inn opened this summer, its design began seven years previous. That’s when Todd Saunders, the Newfoundland-born architect based in Bergen, Norway was hired by Cobb and Shorefast to design a series of artists’ studios, followed by the inn. The process was intense. From his office in Bergen, Saunders produced what he remembers to be at least a thousand floor plans that explored a range of design options. Schemes presented via internet with Shorefast every Wednesday were met with lengthy discussion and incisive questioning. 

With an area of 40,000 square feet, the Fogo Island Inn is the largest project that Saunders has designed to date. Unlike the smaller art studios with their minimal program, the inn was driven more strongly by its internal dynamics. In the end, what prevailed was the response to a basic question: “What makes a good hotel?” The answer hinged on two essential ingredients–the bed and the breakfast. A good bed meant that it be positioned with a panoramic view of the Atlantic, while a good breakfast translated into a dining room that was at once both generous and intimate. The complexity of the program and the simplicity of the architectural parti are captured in the basic configuration of the plan, shaped as an asymmetrical X. Both the plan and the fractured form of the inn seem to echo the remarkable geometric patterns that naturally occur in the island’s rock formations. 

The leg of the plan running parallel to the shoreline contains all of the inn’s 29 rooms. This elongated four-storey volume, which measures about 320 feet in length, is designed as a single-loaded corridor, ensuring that each room has an ocean view. The rooms vary in size from a tidy 350 square feet to 1,000-square-foot double-height loft-styled suites. All rooms on the third and fourth floors have wood-burning stoves. Several suites feature sleeping alcoves, mezzanines, large corner windows, freestanding bathtubs and generous walk-in showers. 

The other leg of the plan, measuring about 200 feet long, is a two-storey volume aligned on the east-west axis of the site. It contains all the “public” amenities of the inn: meeting rooms, a gallery curated by Fogo Island Arts, a library featuring books selected by former Memorial University president Dr. Leslie Harris, and an e-cinema run in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada. At the western end of this section is a double-height dining room where the morning breakfast, lunch, mid-afternoon tea and evening supper are served. From this vantage point, about 60 feet above sea level, large corner windows overlook the horizon of the North Atlantic, a line occasionally interrupted by the dramatic profile of an iceberg or the fin of a humpback whale. 

Both the Fogo Island artists’ studios and the inn are highly invested in addressing issues of economic, cultural and environmental sustainability. It thus comes as no surprise that the design of the inn incorporates a variety of state-of-the-art environmental systems. In terms of active systems, the air-handling units, usually mounted on a rooftop, have been discreetly placed in the basement of the main building. Also located here are in-ground concrete water cisterns that contain rainwater channelled from the roof (to be reused as greywater), as well as a sole cistern for the inn’s super-filtered potable water. Like any residence in rural Newfoundland, the inn also has its own outbuilding. This houses items including wood-fired boilers used to warm water for the hotel’s in-floor radiant heating system, a backup electrical generator, laundry facilities and, last but not least, a shelter for the hotel’s two Newfoundland dogs, Make and Break. Atop its angled roof, 130 solar thermal collectors contribute to water heating. The outbuilding is carefully sited to shield the inn’s main entry from the heavy gusts of wind that seem to be ever-present on the barren landscape of the Back Western Shore of Joe Batt’s Arm.

Given the exposure of the site, one of the most dramatic architectural gestures is the cluster of Corten steel columns that support the eastern end of the inn. About 30 feet in height, the columns are directly tied into the bedrock with minimal alteration to the existing landscape. The forest of columns with the building overhead evokes the cod-drying flakes commonly seen in rural Newfoundland before the downfall of the fisheries in the early 1990s. 

The Fogo Island Inn is framed in steel; however, the building both inside and out is an inventive demonstration of contemporary wood detailing. This is a testament not only to the vision of Saunders but also the technical prowess of the local architectural firm, Sheppard Case Architects. Light grey façades that seemingly disappear in the Fogo Island fog are clad in locally milled, rough-sawn black spruce boards. Given that the building is wrapped in a blueskin membrane, the wood envelope is designed as a zero-detail rain screen with mitered corners and no visible flashings. The horizontal shiplap boards are installed with great care, with each nylon-coated nail hammered by hand. The result of these efforts is a monolithic and understated exterior that gives the inn an overall level of abstraction. The minimization of architectural detail is particularly evident in the way the building meets the ground. The black spruce boards are simply scribed to follow the sinuous outline of the granite boulders and bedrock–the abstract form of the building literally tailored to the specific character of the landscape in which it sits. 

The interior’s walls and ceiling are also lined with black spruce; in this case, smooth, white-painted tongue-and-groove boards. Subtle imperfections in the grain give a level of detail and scale to the hotel’s white interior that echoes the traditional finish of the saltbox houses of outport Newfoundland. The hardwood floors have a hand-oiled finish. Rift-sawn maple lines the hotel corridors, while birch is used in the guest rooms. At the beginning of the project, there was a conscientious decision that all surfaces of the inn that could be touched by hand would be constructed from wood. As a result, all window frames are hardwood and all stair handrails are milled lengths of 11/2”-diameter dowel. 

Beyond the building container, the contents of the inn have also been largely crafted from wood. A roster of young designers, mostly from Europe, designed the furniture. Of particular note are the wooden pegs that line the walls of the guest rooms and support a range of items: a mirror, a bookshelf, laser-cut clothes hangers. The system was conceived by Glass Hill, a London-based firm also responsible for the design of the main reception desk, the bar and the dining room furniture. As part of an overall plan for the economic development of Fogo Island, the inn’s furniture will be manufactured on the island and made available for purchase. 

Like the building,
the furniture is resolutely contemporary while also referencing local vernacular ways of making. Take for instance the brightly painted Puppy Table, designed by one of the project’s architects, Nick Herder. The exuberance of its outline is matched by the economy of its construction–the entire table is sourced from a single length of board. Herder is also responsible, in part, for the digital design of the laser-printed wallpaper that accents a wall of each guest room and lines the secondary stairwells. Never before have fire stairs been so grand, as the colour and design of the wallpaper shifts from one wall to the next with a sense of whimsy and delight. One set of stairs leads to the rooftop of the inn, which houses a Finnish-styled sauna designed by Rintala Eggertsson Architects. Aspen benches line the sauna while the exterior decks and open-air hot tubs–which offer splendid views of the North Atlantic–are clad in cedar. 

Charles Eames once stated that the designer’s role is to be a thoughtful host who anticipates the needs of his guests. In this regard, both the client and the architects of the Fogo Island Inn have proven to be excellent hosts. They have addressed their guests not only within their general design philosophy, but more importantly, in the specificity of the inn’s many details. From the triangle tile-lined vestibule, to the brass-cast key fobs and hand-quilted bed covers, it seems that every detail both large and small has been thoughtfully considered. In the end, all the minutiae of the Fogo Island Inn are instrumental in creating an experience of quality and depth that avoids the nostalgic and the folkloric. The resulting cultural expression is truly original. The Fogo Island Inn encompasses a sense of the past, but more importantly, a genuine regard for the present and a fresh vision for the future of this distinct island culture. CA 

Michael Carroll is originally from Newfoundland. He is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Southern Polytechnic State University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Client Shorefast Foundation–Zita Cobb, Anthony Cobb, Alan Cobb
Architect Team Saunders Architecture–Todd Saunders, Ryan Jørgensen, Joseph Kellner, Attila Béres, Nick Herder. Sheppard Case Architects Inc.–Jim Case, Dwayne Gill, Roger Laing.
Structural DBA Consulting Engineers Ltd.
Mechanical/Electrical Crosbie Engineering Ltd., Sustainable Edge Ltd., Odyssey Mechanical Inc., Bayview Electrical Ltd., Jenkins Power Sheet Metal
Landscape Shorefast Foundation with consultation from Cornelia Oberlander, James Floyd Associates, Todd Boland and Tim Walsh (M.U.N. Botanical Garden)
Interiors Shorefast Foundation, Rintala Eggertsson Architects (sauna area), Studioilse, 2H Interior Design, Tongtong, Designholmen
Contractor Shorefast Foundation, Anthony Cobb, Russ Petten, Dave Torraville, Keith Budgell
Graphics and Wayfinding Bruce Mau Design, Designholmen, Kristina Ljubanovic
Lighting Dark Tools
Furniture, textiles and wallpaper Ineke Hans, Studiomama, Glass Hill, Donna Wilson, Simon Jones, SCP, Élaine Fortin, Tjep, Kym Greeley, Erika Stephens-Moore, Martine Myrup, Nick Herder, Yvonne Mullock, Chris Kabel, Winds and Waves Craft Guild, Mike Paterson, Shorefast Foundation Workshop, Eric Ratkowski, Reiko Igarashi
Area 4,500 m2
Budget Withheld
Completion June 2013