Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Pine-clad Hills


Image of the Long Studio, Fogo Island, Newfoundland via Todd Saunders

Last night I attended a talk at the University of Toronto by Canadian ex-pat architect, Todd Saunders whose practice is based in Bergen, Norway. Saunders is originally from Gander, Newfoundland (you read that correctly) and has recently begun an ambitious project on a pile of rock known as Fogo Island, in Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland (which is really out there in the North Atlantic). The instigator of the project is a success story herself. Zita Cobb made her millions as a top level executive at JDS Uniphase and had an idea to create a sort of cultural resort and artists retreat on the island, sort of in the mould of The Banff Centre. Saunders had been slowly gaining international attention for his beautifully detailed and captivating projects (usually set against striking and wondrous Norwegian landscapes) when he received a call from Cobb. Funny story; he said Cobb called him on his mobile while he was on a kayaking trip and as he was so tired of work he sort of blew her off. When he got ashore, he wandered into an Internet café and searched her name online. After discovering who Cobb was (one of those “Holy Shit” moments) he called her back right away (a few of his stories were punctuated that way).

Saunders is not your typical internationally recognized architect. He’s self-effacing, unpretentious and genuinely amazed at the attention he has received. As a Newf who has traveled extensively and lived longer in Norway than he ever did in Canada he readily admits to having a messed up accent. You get the feeling, it’s his innate curiosity that keeps his work fresh and why more and more people want to work with him. We’re talking about a guy who left his home town and hitchhiked from Paris to Norway just to see how far North he could get on a few bucks. With a background in town planning, he somehow wound up working in London, Berlin, and Moscow before returning to Norway with just “four pairs of underwear and a knapsack.” It was a fateful return. Within a week he had found a job that become a calling, found a place to live and met his future wife.

He showed a lot of work and sprinkled his lecture with humorous anecdotes of surprises, successes, failures and discovery. One of those stories will stick with me. He said the first time he met with Fogo Island residents to discuss the project he wasn’t sure he could convince them and didn’t want to come across as some snobby arsehole but when he looked out into the crowd he saw faces that reminded him of his own aunts, uncles or cousins. Then it became difficult to speak and he became surprised by his own emotions. That’s when he realized not just how important the project was to the residents but to himself. I would go further and say the project is equally important to Newfoundland as Saunders single-handedly brings a high quality contemporary and colloquial architecture to the island. The effect is already spreading as Saunders starts a project in the newly formed national park in Labrador’s Torngat Mountains. On the surface of it, it might seem odd for a Newfie to be a working architect in Norway but the geography is so similar to Newfoundland to me that it seems natural. Todd Saunders said as much himself saying Norway was probably one of the few places as close to being Newfoundland where he could practice architecture. Like a typical Newfoundlander, I felt very proud of the success of a fellow native son and exile.

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