Zita Cobb and Vassilis Sgoutas named 2015 RAIC Honorary Fellows

The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) has selected a Canadian social entrepreneur and a Greek architect, both employing design for social change, to receive its 2015 Honorary Fellowships.

Zita Cobb grew up on Fogo Island, a remote fishing community off the coast of Newfoundland. After a successful high-tech career, she returned and founded Shorefast Foundation. The registered charity uses architecture, art, design, craft and food to invigorate the island’s economy and culture. Major projects include the world-class Fogo Island Inn, Fogo Island Arts, an international artists’ residency program, and Fogo Island Shop, which produces hand-crafted furniture and textiles.

“I deeply believe that architecture has the potential to add greatly to the quality and fabric of life; beyond function and ecological responsibility, to add meaning and joy,” says Cobb. “And now, more than ever before, we need architecture to live up to its potential.” 

Vassilis Sgoutas is an architect in Athens, Greece. During his tenure as president of the International Union of Architects (UIA), the UIA focused on poverty in the developing world, environmental sustainability, and barrier-free design for people with disabilities. In his honour, the UIA created the Vassilis Sgoutas Prize, which recognizes architects who contribute to the improvement of living conditions in poverty-stricken areas.

“What makes this honour special for me is that it could be conducive to opening channels for an increasing presence of Canadian architects on the international architectural scene,” says Sgoutas. “This will unfailingly lead to greater exposure to the richness and diversity of Canadian architecture.”

Honorary fellowship recognizes extraordinary achievement.  Cobb and Sgoutas will be inducted into the RAIC College of Fellows during this year’s RAIC’s Festival of Architecture in Calgary, taking place from June 3-6, 2015.

Each recipient fulfills the spirit of the 2015 Festival theme of “Re-generation and Integration,” says Barry Johns, Chancellor of the RAIC College of Fellows. They demonstrate exceptional commitment “to a truly humanized and sustainable architecture,” he adds.

“Zita Cobb’s patronage of a new and respectful architectural culture and her connecting local craftsmen with international designers has transformed the local economy,” says Johns. “Here, new architecture supports, rather than threatens traditions that are disappearing as our society becomes increasingly urbanised.”

“Vassilis Sgoutas exemplifies the profession’s responsibilities for an improved social and cultural sustainability through the built environment,” says Johns. “He is concerned with the lives of the disabled and poor while illustrating through his work a concern for the fragility of the planet.”

Zita Cobb
Zita Cobb was born “with a gift of place” to a cod-fishing family on Fogo Island, Newfoundland. At age 16, she left to study business at Carleton University in Ottawa and became a senior finance professional in the high-technology industry. She worked at JDS Fitel (subsequently JDS Uniphase) in Ottawa from 1981 to 2001, helping build one of the most successful high-tech innovators in history.

In 2001, in her early 40s, Cobb retired. She eventually returned to Fogo Island where the cod fishery had collapsed and the population had fallen from the 5,500 of her youth to 2,500. Feeling compelled to act, she founded the Shorefast Foundation (www.shorefast.org). The goal was to leverage an initial investment to create community-owned economic assets and contribute to the revitalization of the local culture and economy. In her words, “to preserve some of the things we were losing.” The most significant projects to date are the Fogo Island Inn (www.fogoislandinn.ca) Fogo Island Arts (www.fogoislandarts.ca) and Fogo Island Shop (www.fogoislandshop.ca).

Cobb enlisted the help of architect Todd Saunders, a Newfoundland native who had moved to Norway. He designed the Fogo Island Inn and a series of artists’ studios, built by islanders using traditional materials and techniques. She believes that the key to resilience for rural communities lies in the specificity of place: rediscovering intellectual heritage and cultural wisdom, fostering the talent, knowledge and abundance that already exist.

Various partners are now working with Cobb to develop the Fogo Island model of social investment for other rural places.

 Vassilis Sgoutas
A graduate of the University of Cape Town, Vassilis Sgoutas’s work experience started in South Africa and Iraq. He has been in private practice in Greece since 1961 and is a senior partner of Sgoutas Architects (www.sgoutas.com).

The firm has completed significant projects in Greece as well as in Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Bahrain, Germany, Italy and Tunisia. Among them are hospitals, industrial plants and office buildings. They include the Cerebral Palsy Greece Education and Rehabilitation Centre in Athens and designs for development (as part of an international team) around the ancient Archeological Site of Carthage in Tunisia.

Sgoutas served as president of the International Union of Architects (UIA) from 1999-2002 and earlier as its Secretary General. The UIA represents about 1.3 million architects in more than 100 countries.

As UIA president, he initiated the first Architecture for the Disabled program (now called Architecture for All) to share knowledge and good practice. During his tenure, the UIA also focused on poverty in the developing world, environmentally responsible design and fair opportunities for international trade.

Sgoutas served on the European Economic Community Committee for the Disabled as well as the expert committees that produced the publications European Manual for an Accessible Built Environment and the European Concept for Accessibility.

In 2008, the UIA inaugurated the Vassilis Sgoutas Prize in his honour. The prize is awarded every three years at the UIA Congress to architects contributing to the improvement of living conditions in areas below the level of poverty.