Fogo island is muted. No gulls’ cries pollute the air. There is the brush and sweep of the wind and the clink and ting of the rigging. There are voices and accents, too, as difficult to navigate as the coastline. The banter is a fused tangle of highland Scots, West Country English and the tang and strangle of Ulster - with a flat Northumbrian vowel edging in every now and then. There’s that affirmative sharp intake of breathe that punctuates every conversation too – as well as phrases unheard of since your Dorset-born granny passed away. You can never predict what new sensation is going to be rapping at your ears. And, similarly, it’s the brush and burn of colour and texture, the juxtaposed surfaces, fluid, rock, lichen and scree – that dumbfound the eyes.
On a clear, unusually warm September morning we find ourselves confronted with another Newfoundland juxtaposition – a dark tower, asymmetrical and angular – reaches out to the sky down on the shoreside rock at Shoal Bay. Constructed with dark, textured local timbers carried from the sea and across lichen-friendly duck boards, Tower Studio is etched against the cobalt with a strangely powerful, brooding presence. There’s something nestling at the heart of its textures and its boldness. It’s the sort of modernist log cabin that fuses the wild and the cultured, the simple and the sophisticated. It’s an equation of opposites that epitomises these islands.
The building is one of a series of buildings designed by Newfoundland-based architect Todd Saunders and commissioned by The Shorefast Foundation. Shorefast is an initiative masterminded by high-tech entrepreneur Zita Cobb. Raised on Fogo and forced to tread the well-worn path of the migrant Newfoundland worker, she returned to Fogo in 2001 and has since devoted her energies to re-imagining the culture and the economy of the islands.
In many ways Fogo has experienced a history shared by fishing communities the world over. For hundreds of years the people here lived solely from the resources of the sea – these islands being among the earliest settled communities of the Canadian territories. Located in the icey Labrador Current, to live here is to be sardonic, hardy, straightforward. To survive economically and spiritually entails an intimacy with community and the vagaries of the ocean.
When, in 1992 a moratorium was imposed upon commercial cod fishing, an entire industry was decimated – and the communities that relied on the fishery were left reeling. Projects like the ones people like Zita Cobb have been promoting are vital in helping to reverse a process which, without this sort of bold vision, would inexorably lead to a spiral of greater migration and a deeper economic trench.
The idea is that artists come to Fogo and take up periods of residency in the various studios. They work there for weeks and months,while living with families in the surrounding communities and introduce themselves and their world to the unique play of light and sensibility that finds its home here. It’s a bold vision – and just up the coast there’s a super high-end resort due to be finished in 2013 – as well as a general focus on the kind of renewal that harnesses tradition while pushing forward to a new vision of what is possible in a community like this.
Like a beacon looking out to an ocean that may or may not be rapidly restocking with cod, the Tower and its sibling constructions are motifs of a coming era for Newfoundland. We advise everyone to get there to witness the renaissance.
Air Canada flies direct between St John’s, Newfoundland & Heathrow Airport.