Fogo Island's cultural revival

4 Oct 2010

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By Emily Urquhart

The journey to the Long Studio on Fogo Island will likely begin in Gander for the bevy of acclaimed international artists, designers, writers, musicians, dancers and filmmakers slated to take part in a new three- to six-month residency program on this remote chunk of land, 15 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland. After touching down at the airport, there’s an hour-long drive to Farewell, the aptly named port of departure, a spell on the rocky North Atlantic in a ferry boat, and a winding island drive through the outports of Stag Harbour, Seldom, Little Seldom, Shoal Bay, Barr’d Islands and Joe Batt’s Arm. The road veers left at a rocky outcrop with the green, white and pink unofficial Newfoundland flag painted on its face, and comes to an end at the groundfish processing plant. The black earth path that runs alongside the sea is too rocky and muddy for vehicles, so the final portion of the journey is made on foot.

Then, if it’s not too foggy, the black clapboard exterior of the Long Studio, designed by award-winning architect Todd Saunders, takes shape. It’s a linear, seemingly narrow structure on stilts that stretches across 120 square metres of Fogo Island’s barrens. You approach the back rather than the front of the structure because, as Saunders explains, “If you reveal too much too soon, just like in writing, or telling a joke, all the surprises are gone.”

The Long Studio, completed in June, is just one step – albeit a major one – in a multi-layered project aimed at revamping the Fogo Island econ omy. In the past, cod was king here, and the islanders survived off an inshore fishery that lasted 300 years. Since the 1992 cod moratorium, as in the rest of the province, Fogo residents have had to refocus. In recent years, the 11 scattered communities (total population around 2,700) have seen a revitalization process take shape, in the form of a non-profit organization called Shorefast, steered by Zita Cobb, a native of Joe Batt’s Arm. A savvy entrepreneur, Cobb made her fortune in fibre optics in Ontario and retired in her early 40s. After being away for some 30 years, she returned to Fogo armed with a cache of funds and a host of big ideas. They included an e-cinema, whereby the National Film Board delivers thousands of films to remote communities via the Internet; a five-star inn, slated for completion in 2012; a residence and arts production program housed in the Long Studio; and five other unique artists’ studios currently under construction (four are scheduled to be finished in the spring). All the structures are being designed by Saunders and his Bergen, Norway, architecture firm, which entails a lot of teleconferencing and Skype meetings, but it also means Saunders needs to make at least four trips a year to Newfoundland.

For the architect, born and raised in Gander, this project is a welcome return to his roots. It’s said that you don’t “come” from Newfoundland, you “belong” to it, and Saunders’ belonging manifests itself in his work. “Here I have complete confidence,” he says. “I grew up squid fishing with my grandfather, hunting rabbits, fly fishing. I know this place like the back of my hand.”
For Cobb, Saunders’ Scandinavian sense of design and Newfoundlander’s sense of place made him a natural fit for the project. “I didn’t have to explain outport Newfoundland to him,” Cobb says. “He immediately understood the duty he had.”

The Long Studio suits the outport landscape but doesn’t camouflage it. It’s the “strangely familiar” Saunders aims to capture and, of course, the element of surprise. In contrast to the closed black spruce clapboard of the long southern facade, the opposite side features jarring sections cut out of the building shell to reveal a whitewashed three-part ensemble that mixes indoor and outdoor spaces. In essence, the building comprises two open-air sections – one covered by the roof to shield it from the elements, the other completely exposed – and an interior studio space. The exterior’s carved geometric angles suit the whims of the capricious Newfoundland weather, framing the surrounding landscape with views that will change with the light and the seasons. This framing recurs at the elevated west end, where a wall of windows showcases Fogo’s traditional fishing grounds, the raison d’être for the island’s original European settlement. On the opposite end, the east-facing windows and entrance overlook the island’s barrens, a rock and heather expanse of flat land as endless as the sea.

The interior walls and ceiling are lined with rough-faced spruce panels painted white, forming a series of continuous lines from exterior to in ter ior, which Saunders hopes will provide a clean slate for the creative process. The walls can be stapled, nailed into, painted on and then whitewashed again when each visiting artist finishes his or her term. Running along the south wall, the kitchen, composting toilet, wash basins and bunk bed–style sleeping area can all be concealed by a floor-to-ceiling panel on a track, thus allowing for a larger canvas and fewer visual distractions.

The studio is built entirely off the grid, in keeping with Saunders’ ecological sensibilities. Its metre-deep south wall houses the water systems and all wires, while the rooftop solar panels take care of heat and electricity. A wood stove provides extra warmth and helps wick away the notorious Newfoundland damp, and a triangular skylight maximizes the natural light.

Supporting and elevating the main body of the structure, the stilts are a nod to Fogo Island’s vernacular architecture. They were, and still are, a solution to building on an uneven, rocky landscape. Other similarities come through in the details. “Everything in here is in every other house in Newfoundland,” Saunders says, referring to the bare-bones light fixtures, basic electrical outlets and locally sourced spruce panelling.

When approaching this project, Saunders considered the emergence of new ideas in the province’s contemporary arts. “There’s new New found land music and writing, but what’s new Newfoundland architecture?” he asked himself. The Long Studio and the buildings to follow in its wake are his answer. “This is my interpretation,” Saunders says. “For me, this is Newfoundland architecture.”