Andrew Chardain first saw Fogo Island, off the fractured coast of Newfoundland, on a motorcycling trip with friends in fall 2011. Traversing the island's long expanses of barren rock between small fishing villages, as rain poured down, the group came upon an isolated "little black cube" of a building that caught this architect-in-the-making's eye.
Chardain, who works as a designer at TruexCullins in Burlington, had read about Norway architect Todd Saunders' artist studios; here was one of them, encountered in the wild. Talking with locals, Chardain learned that Saunders, a Newfoundland native, had been commissioned to design four such studios around the island, as well as an inn. The buildings' intended purpose was to help preserve Fogo Island's economy and culture through tourism in the absence of the island's 400-year-old economic driver, cod fishing.
A documentary film about this transformation process, Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island, directed by Katherine Knight and Marcia Connolly, will be screened at Burlington City Arts on Tuesday, April 14, as the last in this year's Architecture + Design Film Series. Chardain and fellow series organizers Lynda McIntyre and Karen Frost have waited a long time to show this one: It was originally scheduled to conclude last year's series but wasn't finished in time.
Shots of Saunders' work in situ alone make the film worth the wait. Each studio is a boldly geometric creation in black or white: a twisting tower rising abruptly from a bog; a wildly angular, trapezoidal structure perched on an Atlantic-battered outcropping. Their mothership, the stunning 29-room Fogo Island Inn, consists of two crossed rectangular boxes, one portion of the X jutting toward the ocean on off-kilter stilts.
Chardain's "completely random" encounter with the island gave him another reason for wanting to see the film. "We were witnessing, without knowing it, this change that was coming to Fogo Island," he says of the trip. The motorcyclists were taken in and fed by residents such as Roy Dwyer, who appears in the film, and his 99-year-old former schoolteacher. The elders talked worriedly about the exodus of young people and the disappearing craft of making punts, Newfoundland's traditional wooden boats.
"When I finally saw [the film], I was blown away," says Chardain. "They did an amazing job of incorporating the community members, who talk about the root of why they're doing this — beyond 'We need jobs.'"
The story centers on an angel investor, island-born Zita Cobb. She made her millions abroad in internet fiber optics, cashed in at age 43 and decided to plow her fortune into reviving her rocky home. Cobb's father, a cod fisherman like much of the island's population (now numbering 2,400), lost his way of life when Canada banned Newfoundland's commercial cod fishery in 1992. Factory trawling had nearly decimated the species, and an entire local culture began its rapid descent that year.
Determined to turn things around, Cobb founded the charity Shorefast Foundation in 2003 and engaged Saunders, from nearby Gander, to create the visual sirens for the island's cultural renaissance. The foundation manages artist residencies at the studios and hosts events such as an upcoming conference titled "Culture as Destination." Shorefast engaged local craftspeople to fabricate the inn's furnishings, and it facilitates cultural activities for the guests, such as punt-making demonstrations and visits to fishermen's restored saltbox houses.
The starkly angular forms of Saunders' architecture may seem anomalous in such a setting, but they're in tune with the island's traditions, says Chardain. Saltboxes were traditionally built without foundations and could be moved by boat or sled when sold; Saunders' use of stilts recalls that arrangement, and his placement of windows and doors echoes the traditional structures' orientation toward the sea.
"He wants [his buildings] to heighten awareness of the landscape," Chardain says, and thereby to preserve its wildness. One artist studio was built from materials carted on-site by wheelbarrow along a narrow temporary boardwalk built to protect the surrounding bog's delicate lichen and native cloudberry plants. All of the studios can be reached only on foot or by bicycle.
One aspect the film doesn't address is that rooms at the five-star Fogo Island Inn start at $875 per night and can exceed $2,875 per night for room and board. Cobb must have brushed shoulders with enough 1 percenters in her international career to realize that salvation lies with the high-enders. For the rest of us, there is the deep visual pleasure of the film, which is free.
The original print version of this article was headlined "A Local Screening Explores Innovative Buildings in Coastal Newfoundland"