Architecture’s new rock star: Newfoundland’s (and Norway’s) Todd Saunders


LISA ROCHON October 1, 2010

Hooked. On architecture. That’s what you’ll be feeling after the Fogo Island Arts colony is done with you. A series of pavilions cut like shards of volcanic stone are being constructed off the coast of Newfoundland at the edge of the raging Atlantic.

Architect Todd Saunders, a Newfoundlander who moved 14 years ago to Norway, is the talent behind the dark blades of intelligent design. His client, Zita Cobb, a native of Fogo Island and president of the Shorefast Foundation, is investing some of her dot-com millions to reposition her remote community into a cultural, architecturally enlightened destination.

Pinch me. This might be a rare utopia but it is not a dream.

The reality is that the Long Studio, a box clad in blackened rough-sawn pine that telescopes its length and mighty view toward the Atlantic, has already been completed. Four other studios, with steel legs drilled down into the rock, and a studio tower, now under construction, are scattered nearby.

They’re all self-sustaining, off-the-grid capsules, without any power connecting them back to the surrounding villages. Their sculptural forms – brazen, mysterious, unfolding – are constructed by local builders whom Saunders calls “the best in the world.” Cobb’s brother Tony expertly handles the details of construction, including the sustainable design innovations: water collection, solar panels, thick, highly insulated walls. Sheppard Case Architects of St. John’s are the lead local consultants.

A mission of Shorefast, a non-profit that fosters social entrepreneurship, is to provide visiting writers and artists time and space to do their work while breathing new life into a community hit by the cod fishery collapse and out-migration. Instead of outport, Cobb wants us to consider the communities of Fogo and nearby Change Islands as places of intake.

To that end, she’s commissioned the renovation of several traditional “saltbox” houses, where artists will live within the clutch of a community, and walk 10 or 15 minutes to their Saunders-designed studios.

All six studios are scheduled to be complete by June. A five-star inn for tourists, also by Saunders Architecture, is under construction. Besides the sauna and spa facility, there will be culinary delights on the menu to satisfy the foodies who flock with growing regularity to the island.

No ambivalence about the role of architecture here, about how contemporary design might owe something to the past. Just a compelling shaping of space that seizes its site and attaches itself to the here and now.

The Long House floats above the volcanic rock on wooden stilts in the same way as much of Newfoundland’s outport housing. The ground is uneven and it’s too impractical to dig down. And this way the brutal winds can scream over and under the building rather than beating against an impossible wall.

Saunders, 40, earned a degree in architecture from McGill University but, before that, wanting to be a potter or a sculptor, he began his studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Later, at the Rhode Island School of Design, he learned to trust his instincts as a manipulator of form and realize that, as he says, “you could lose your breath in architecture.”

His ability to get at the essence of architecture, or “cook it down,” is why his work in Canada and in Norway have made him a rising star of contemporary design.

Wanting to push his architecture into nature, Saunders designed a modest residence and painting studio that seem to peer wide-eyed into a densely forested site on Saltspring Island; in Norway, there's a fearsome optimism about his forest lookouts and even public washrooms, designed with former partner Tommie Wilhelmsen, which feature chunky black concrete with big windows overlooking rocky sites.

Saunders, who grew up in Gander, Nfld., resists built standardization to create intelligent architecture that's big on personality and short on fussy details. That’s a welcome change. The interior of the Long Studio is clad entirely in white-washed spruce, the better for artists, writers or filmmakers to sketch on or paint over or pin up their storylines. “I’m not a really big fan of over-detailing,” says Saunders. “It can be very expensive. We boil it down until we have the absolute essence. If it’s a good idea, you should be able to build it out of rubber or paper and it’ll still be strong.”

That kind of rugged minimalism is quickly gaining an international audience. Saunders says he fields calls almost daily from the press from Shanghai and South Korea, and his work has already been published in the authoritative Italian design magazine, Domus. The Harvard Design Review and New York’s Metropolis magazine have also come calling. The current issues of Canadian Architect and Azure both prominently featured the work of Saunders Architecture.

It was after graduating from McGill, while hitchhiking from Paris to China, that Saunders discovered Norway. He was researching northern ecological communities when he landed a job in Norway on a Monday, and met his wife-to-be on the Friday. Fourteen years later, now a father of two daughters, Saunders is based in the university city of Bergen, a mini Vancouver, where he operates his small but global studio.

Speaking English with an accent that blends his Newfoundland roots with his workaday Norwegian, Saunders works with architects decamped to Bergen from Australia, Finland and Germany. His studio is cluttered with a healthy mess of nearly 50 models but the architects rely heavily and happily on technology. Saunders spends much of the day Skyping with a team member who lives in Budapest.

He uses what could be described as a time restraint to his advantage, sharing drawings on Skype and evaluating progress at what is the end of his day and the beginning of a colleague’s. Work, says Saunders, becomes a seamless global relay. And, travel is part of his routine. Just yesterday, he was booked to fly to Labrador, where he's designing the Torngasok cultural centre for Nunatsiavut.

Though he's considering opening a second office in Canada, Saunders doesn’t want his Norwegian office to grow. He likes the pace, of escaping occasionally to kayak in southern Norway, as he was when Zita Cobb first called him up. He calls architecture his hobby. His Fogo Island colony is like a flare going up on a deserted road.

Brilliant enough to make the world pay attention, provoking us to slow down, rather than driving blindly into the night.