“STRANGE & FAMILIAR: ARCHITECTURE ON FOGO ISLAND” — Visions of Positive Change

strange and failiar

“STRANGE & FAMILIAR: ARCHITECTURE ON FOGO ISLAND”

Visions of Positive Change

Amos Lassen

Marcia Connelly and Katherine Knight”s “Strange and Familiar” we get a look at Fogo Island, a small community off of Newfoundland that is struggling to maintain its unique way of life as its cod fishing industry is failing. We become aware of architect Todd Saunders and social entrepreneur Zita Cobb’s vision for positive change that has resulted in the envisioning, designing and building of strikingly original architecture whose function is to be a catalyst for social change. Together with community and local workers, the people who live on the island work to bring change to the island.

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When Saunders released the first images that excited those who work in the world of architecture. Since then, Fogo Island has been documented in more than 80 international magazines and blogs. The striking buildings that we see are located in an equally dramatic natural setting of the landscape of Fogo Island. The combination of sophisticated design and wilderness backdrop gives a contemporary frame to an ancient landscape; one that includes the excitement of living on the edge in relation to nature and to modern design. The success of Todd Saunders’ designs shows Fogo Island as a geo-tourism destination and fulfills one of the goals of Zita Cobb, the Island born social entrepreneur. With her ‘arts-centric’ approach she has spearheaded the architectural commission and an international artists residency while enlisting the local support that has helped get these projects off the ground. The members of the Island community, some two thousand people have a lot at stake.

strange2With the death of the traditional cod industry, Fogo Island society must find new ways to generate its economy or die. The success of Cobb’s project depends on retaining what is special about the way of life on Fogo Island while, at the same time, redefining its place in the world. For Todd Saunders the Fogo Island commission is something of a homecoming. Saunders is based in Norway where his reputation has been established but he was born and raised in Gander, Newfoundland, just over two hours journey from Fogo Island. The Fogo Island project is therefore very personal for him and client satisfaction takes on a whole new meaning when the client, as in this case, includes friends and family. Newfoundland was a formative experience for Saunders as a person and as an architect. This deeply shared background sensitizes his awareness that each detail of the buildings he designs have to be scrupulously ‘right’ in the eyes of his most demanding critics; the citizens of Fogo Island.

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The requirement of the project is that every aspect respect to the cultural traditions that inspire it.  The charm of rural Newfoundland outpost communities lies in the human scale of the buildings, and in what writer Chris Brooks describes as “the poetry of inhabiting a particular piece of geography over centuries, spoken in the language of village architecture.” We see  “proportion, modesty, honesty of materials and the sustainable balance between community and nature”.  For Zita Cobb the project has to “take the lived experience, take the land, take who we are, and do our very best to express it in a contemporary way.” For Saunders immediately signed on because there was no way that anybody “knew more about this place than I did as an architect”. His buildings pay respect his heritage while imbuing each structure with the spirit of the ‘new’ and finds a winning balance between the strange and familiar.

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Beautifully photographed over all four seasons, this is a visual narrative that unfolds over time as the Fogo Island Inn is being constructed. Cobb’s belief in the tension of opposites as a positive force in human experience is reflected throughout the film.  The Inn is totally modern yet filled with textures inherited from the past. The idea of moving forward while reaching back is easily felt in the juxtaposition of old and new architecture. There are extensive interviews with Todd Saunders and Zita Cobb that provide intimate insight into the personalities and motivations behind the creation of the new and adventurous architecture. An extensive cast of local residents gives the real-world context in which the buildings exist.

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