Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Holy Jaysus 

Strange & Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island from Site Media inc.

Last week I had choices to make. I could go to a Toronto volunteer night, a ward advocacy meeting, a public presentation about the plans for a park beneath the Gardiner Expressway, or a see a film documenting the Fogo Island project designed by Newfoundland born, but Norway based architect, Todd Saunders. I went with my heart and the heart wanted to go home.

This project by the Shorefast Foundation, primarily funded by philanthropist Zita Cobb is fascinating for many reasons. Cobb’s own story is amazing. She grew up on Fogo but moved away to study and found success in the booming fibre optics industry of the 90s, eventually rising to position of CFO, making her one of the top paid female executives in North America. When she tired of the tech industry, she cashed out her significant holdings (making almost $70 million by some accounts), bought a yacht and sailed the world. She set up a school in Africa and created scholarships for promising students in her home town. When someone approached Cobb saying, “You realize, you’re paying our children to leave.” she had to rethink her philanthropy. Thus the project to create six studios for visiting artists (four have been built) and a boutique inn with all the mod-cons for tourists. The inn and the arts projects are intended to be the germ of a greater economy; the inn needs staff, linens, furniture, someone to make the furniture, maintenance, food service and on and on.

The film highlighted much of the foundation’s other work such as creating a punt race organized to showcase a boat building internship program but the star of the show is the strikingly minimal architecture perched atop beautiful rocky outcrops. The wonderful balancing act Saunders manages is how these structures speak directly with the landscape and of the vernacular architecture once so common in rural Newfoundland. Even Saunders himself is overcome by the power and beauty of what he, Cobb and the builders of Fogo have created together when he makes his first winter site visit. You can hear him exclaim, “Holy Jaysus!” within the roar of the wind and water and ice. In design circles, you get sort of use to see beautiful little wooden boxes set like jewels on a craggy shore but usually in Scandinavia. I think Canadians and Americans are awestruck to see that this architectural statement and place of such natural beauty belongs on this side of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, it takes a wealthy over achiever and a talented architect to fight against what time has worn away. Outport towns and the culture they incubated and nurtured are more history than future. The wonders of the Internet and the ease of global travel have overwhelmed local traditions which have withered in the wake of modernity. When I go to St. John’s I hear more accents than ever before, people brought to the city by oil bringing their expertise and their own voices. Yet you hear fewer and fewer distinct Newfoundland accents. When I was in high school, I could recognize accents from the east end of St. John’s, from St. Phillip’s, from Trepassey, Bay Roberts, Gander or Corner Brook. My ear is no longer so attuned but I’ve been told anecdotally that you just don’t hear the really thick accents in younger Newfoundlanders. As globalization brings us closer together it decimates what distinguishes us from each other.

Photo of Dave and Dad playing cribbage
Playing cribbage in Sydney Cove

At one point during the film we see an accomplished craftsman and boatbuilder. As he shows the cameras his collection of rough hewn lumber selected for quality and shape, I was struck by how my own father spoke about how his grandfather would choose wood in the very same way. Seeing the wharves and houses of Fogo, Tilting and Joe Batt’s Arm I couldn’t help but be reminded of the times we visited the now abandoned island where my father grew up. Was it nostalgia? Sentimental feelings? A romance for a faraway and isolated place or some more inherent connection to the sea? I don’t know, but I let myself get lost a little bit on those rocks and for a moment I could smell the ocean air, feel the salt spray, the cold of the open water and the warmth of the shore.

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