Category Archives: culture

Fogo Island, Newfoundland


I made my way to Fogo Island off the North coast of Newfoundland in Atlantic Canada this summer (celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow just beat me to it); here are some of my thoughts and photos from the trip.

This small Canadian island of 2,500 inhabitants is creating quite a stir the past few years. And much of the hoopla is around this stunning structure, built partly on stilts. The Fogo Island Inn was designed by Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders. The five-star, 29-room, luxury ‘journey’s end’ has generated lots of jobs for locals and garnered international attention. It features a rooftop spa, library, high-end personal service, and luxe décor based on local traditions. Two words: book early.


Behind a growing initiative to make Fogo a geotourism destination is Zita Cobb, a dot-com entrepreneur who retired early after making her fortune abroad and for the last decade has been dedicated to helping rebuild the island she left when she was 16. To encourage people to stay, she established the Shorefast Foundation – an organization committed to preserving the Islanders’ traditions and aims at rejuvenating the Island through the arts and culture.

Cobb is the client behind the now world-famous inn and a series of six artists’ studios (also by Saunders) scattered across the Island. These unique, self-sustaining, off-the-grid pavilions perched on the edge of the Atlantic provide visiting international writers and artists time and space to do their work.




Residents are appreciative of the attention and the business, which has made a real difference to Fogo. It is helping to sustain, so far, a very particular and special social fabric. Frayed and weathered, it may be, but the colourful, vibrant and resilient communities of the Island continue to make their mark.








Saunders Architecture has a portfolio of contemporary northern projects set against dramatic landscapes: simple villas and lookout points over Nordic fjords, e.g. Aurland Lookout. His work on Fogo is getting a lot of coverage: books, global film screenings, TEDx talks, and earning similar commissions, including new rural retreat homes in the western Canadian wilderness and seven small architectural ‘objects’ strung along a nature trail in Sweden. Perhaps for a next trek…



The new app ‘DUET’ for the iPad features a 2 min video interview about what motivates Architect Todd Saunders and how it informs his design process:

A 1-minute teaser for the film: Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island.

Newfoundland : small places and vacant spaces

newfoundland_scalvetNewfoundland is situated on Canada’s easternmost edge.

Affectionately known as ‘The Rock’, this coastal province is suffering Canada’s most severe fiscal and demographic crisis after some hard-hitting blows: a fishery collapse in the 90s, an oil-price slump and mounting debt. Dwindling populations are left in the small fishing outports that built it. The government of Newfoundland is seeking to close these places, rather than service them. It is offering cash incentives for people to abandon their homes. You can read about this here.


But tourism has ramped up in the past few years, thanks in part to the Fogo Island Inn (more on that later) and to successful cinematic advertising campaigns beckoning travelers to make the trek. People are drawn to the capital’s (St. John) convivial folk music scene, to the villages’ vernacular architecture –in particular, the beautifully restored fishing rooms and saltbox houses, and to the province’s raw beauty: national parks, ecological reserves, ‘iceberg alley’, etc. Here are a few moments from my recent visit: 




The New Founde Lande Trinity Pageant takes one back to the 1700s. Local actors and singers from the Rising Tide Theatre lead scores of visitors on a scenic walking tour of the Town of Trinity. Against the backdrop of historic merchant buildings, churches, and cemeteries they portray the daily lives, traditions, and hardships of their forefathers.


Every summer and fall, the Town of Trinity’s Rising Tide Theatre presents a series of plays that reflect the history and culture of Newfoundland.









Nestled on Northern Point is an otherwise unremarkable old twine shed named the “House of Commons” (aka Bill Piercey’s Store). But inside is a treasure trove of flotsam and jetsam of fishermen’s lives that speak to a time before the Internet. In this Dead Poets Society-like man cave, men young and old used to congregate on old chairs, tubs, and heaps of cod traps spinning yarns while the stove crackled. They discussed anything from water mains, hockey games, and everything a man may need for a fishing boat. It was also the setting for many heated debates over town matters or government affairs. The shed fell silent in 1986 when Uncle Bill Piercey passed away but you can almost hear their voices echo through the touching variety of artifacts lovingly left in place.

Intimate community places like this are hard to come by.

House of Common’s (Bill Piercey’s Store): “It is a place where men may meet, All through their weary lives; It’s a haven from the ocean, And a heaven from their wives.”

House of Commons (Bill Piercey’s store): “It is a place where men may meet, All through their weary lives; It’s a haven from the ocean, And a heaven from their wives.”



Newfoundland and Labrador’s 2016 tourism advertising campaign included a television ad entitled Crayons.

La Ville de Québec






Guy Levesque crafting another of his extraordinary hand carved molds.

Guy Levesque crafting another of his extraordinary hand carved molds.

Meet Guy Levesque, a rare find. He provides a glimpse into the world of a true artisan. For over 25 years, from his workshop-gallery in the Old Port district of Quebec City, he has brought the medieval art of Venetian mask making to Canada. His influences span Commedia dell’arte, Japanese Noh, to the contemporary. His chosen media are leather and metal, which can also be seen in his unique furniture pieces.





Une tradition québécoise: le tire d'érable (maple taffy)

Une tradition québécoise: le tire d’érable (maple taffy)

Big-box buyers become bookworms

Here is an idea that has been mooted post- Target Canada debacle. And it comes, indirectly, from its discount store rival Walmart, no less. After Walmart abandoned one of its retail stores in McAllen, Texas, the city decided to reuse the structure as a new main library. Reinvention in the face of adversity is a common theme these days.

McAllen, Texas' new main library is located in a converted Walmart store. Photo by MSR.

McAllen, Texas’ new library is located in a converted Walmart. Photo: MSR Design

Target Canada recently announced that it is packing up shop less than two years after opening 133 stores across the country. Some blame its failure in the Canadian market on anti-competitive pricing while others attribute it to a limited product selection (I’ve also heard “it didn’t understand the complexity of the Canadian consumer”). It will be interesting to know what’s in store for the slew of these newly vacant big-boxes in the ‘burbs. In the meantime, ears are perked for ‘liquidation sales!’ Let’s hope incoming Uniqlo fares better…


Your typical Target Canada superstore. Photo: Geoff Robins/Reuters

South of the snowline, architecture firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle (MSR) has created a highly functional, flexible library of 125,000 square feet, making it the largest single-storey library in the U.S.A. To give that some context, it is an area equivalent to nearly 2 1/2 football fields.

To start, the former Walmart store’s ceilings were stripped and the interior and new mechanical systems were painted white to form a neutral backdrop for new patron and service areas, which are designated with colour and texture.

BEFORE. Photo: MSR Design

Within the sprawling volume, the designers created more intimate spaces introducing form, pattern, and light. All aspects –from the interior architecture, to the graphics, to the furnishings– work in harmony and relate to one another.

The library creates a much-needed intellectual and social hub that arguably brings more to the community than another superstore can. The new venue boasts 16 public meeting spaces, 14 public study rooms, 64 computer labs, 10 children’s computer labs, and 2 genealogy computer labs. Other features include an auditorium, an art gallery, a used bookstore and a café. There is even a Farmer’s Market on the weekends.

Here is what the designers came up with:

Laser-cut wood ceiling plane runs the length of the building. Photo courtesy of MSR.

Laser-cut wood ceiling plane runs the length of the building. Photo: MSR Design

Super-graphic-clad ceiling pendants and lighting and flooring choices define spaces. Photo courtesy of MSR.

Super-graphic-clad ceiling pendants, lighting and flooring choices define spaces. Photo: MSR Design

For easy wayfinding and to encourage self-servicing, service desks and collection areas are designated with colourful, textural landmarks. Photo: MSR Design

Inspired by the Fibonacci Series, the layout and patterns found in the childrens area mimic growth patterns in kids. Photo by MSR.

Inspired by the Fibonacci Series, the layout and patterns found in the children’s area mimic growth patterns in kids. Photo: MSR Design

The teen hang-out area is acoustically separated from the rest of the library. Photo: MSR Design

FLOOR PLAN: bisecting axes define program areas. Image courtesy of MSR.

FLOOR PLAN: bisecting axes define program areas. Image: MSR Design

There is a lot of talk these days of how libraries, large and small, are evolving in the face of the digital revolution, which is radically changing how we access and consume information. As we see in McAllen, libraries are prioritizing community engagement and facilitating new learning models. But that’s a broader topic for another day.

To find out more about this project, click here.

Architecture on Film: Cathedrals of Culture

Architecture takes centre-stage in the 3D film Cathedrals of Culture, rather than its more usual background role. According to reviewers, this six-part documentary, directed by six acclaimed filmmakers, explores the cultural significance of six iconic and very different buildings from angles not seen before.

Oslo Opera House

Oslo Opera House, a futuristic symbiosis of art and life. Photo by Øystein Mamen.

Spearheaded by German filmmaker Wim Wenders, the film asks the question: “If buildings could talk, what would they say about us?” Wenders builds on the 3D techniques he first employed in the documentary Pina. He is joined by Michael Madsen, Robert Redford, Michael Glawogger, Margreth Olin and Karim Aïnouz. Each lends a distinctive artistic approach to the project, exploring a day in the life of these “cultural machines” — the Berlin Philharmonic, the National Library of Russia, Halden Prison, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Oslo Opera House and the Centre Georges Pompidou. Narrated by the imagined voices of the buildings themselves, the film ambitiously aims to uncover “the soul of buildings.” While The Guardian’s Oliver Wainright says it presents a “limited and internalised view of architecture”, as a formal exercise its camerawork and visual mastery is captivating.

Salk Institute for Biological Studies

The Salk Institute, an institute for breakthrough science. Photo by Alex Falk.

The Berlin Philharmonic, an icon of modernity. Photo by Wim Wenders.

The Berlin Philharmonic building, an icon of modernity. Photo by Wim Wenders.

Centre Pompidou

Centre Pompidou, a modern culture machine. Photo by Ali Olcay Gozkaya.

The National Library of Russia, a kingdom of thoughts. Photo by Wolfgang Thaler

The National Library of Russia, a kingdom of thoughts. Photo by Wolfgang Thaler.

Halden Prison, the world's most humane prison. Photo by Heikki Färm.

Norway’s Halden Prison, the “world’s most humane prison.” Photo by Heikki Färm.

Cathedrals of Culture premiered at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival. Keep an eye out for its next screenings. In the meantime, see the official trailer: