Fogo Island, a small rocky outpost of Newfoundland, off Canada’s east coast, is a powerfully elemental, remote piece of land on the edge of the North Atlantic. Its dramatic geography is matched by a climate of sunny winters and moderate summers, punctuated by the Labrador Current’s notorious gales. The island and the nearby Change Islands have some of the oldest settlements in the country, and the islanders’ traditional way of life and work – cod fishing – has evolved in response to the unforgiving climate. But, as the global economy has changed, so has fishing, and the community has been left struggling in the face of declining catch and offshore factory fishing.
Enter Fogo Island-born Canadian businesswoman Zita Cobb. In 2004, Cobb set up the Shorefast Foundation, a social enterprise devoted to helping revitalise the island. Its mission was to preserve the island’s traditions while rejuvenating the local economy through the arts and cultural tourism.
The Fogo Island Arts Corporation emerged from the foundation, together with the launch of plans for a 29-room inn and a network of artists’ studios, to be let out for residencies to artists from all over the world. The Fogo Island Inn will include a restaurant headed up by one of Canada’s top chefs, a library, a spa and sauna facility, an art gallery and a small digital cinema.
To take on the overall design of the project, the foundation approached the Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders, whose work is frequently site-specific to the North Atlantic and draws upon the region’s wood-building tradition.
Saunders’ concept for the studios revolves around a series of strong geometric shapes that stand in contrast to the nature around them, without competing with it. Orientated towards the sea, the studios offer their residents the perfect view of elemental extremes and seasonal changes. Each one has its own unique design and is connected to one of the island’s communities.
The first studio to be built, in 2010, was the 130 sq m Long Studio on the north site of Joe Batt’s Arm, close to the inn. The structure hovers on a series of stilts that lift it off the ground to frame a view of the Atlantic. The next three were finished at the end of 2011 and are the scheme’s most recent additions – the tall, origami-esque Tower Studio in Shoal Bay; the smaller Bridge Studio, conceived as a place for contemplation with its own small library, located next to a freshwater lake in Deep Bay; and Squish Studio, a distorted orthogonal volume near Tilting, home to the island’s predominantly Irish community. Two more, the Short Studio in Little Seldom and the Fogo Studio by Fogo village, will complete the family of structures later in the year.
As much as the architecture is tied to the grass roots locality of Fogo Island, the residency programme is still a newcomer, although it is one the locals are looking forward to welcoming. The studios are gearing up for full completion, with the first four already in use. The inn, also in development, is planned to open in late 2012. Designs for the furnishings have been sourced all over the world, with all the elements being made by local people, helping to generate employment and develop skills.
The Fogo Island Arts Corporation has the power to transform the island into a new cultural, ecological and culinary geotourism destination, while at the same time kickstarting a new financial future for the area. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in ten years’ time, we were flourishing as an arts-active, fishing community that was a model for social entrepreneurship, a place that our young people could come back home to and work?’ says Cobb. Given her team’s enthusiasm and expertise, and the architecture on offer, there is now a good chance they will.