During a recent trip to Newfoundland, Mason had the chance to visit the Fogo Island Arts Corporation situated off the northern coast of Newfoundland. The stunning series of artist studios serve as the home to the foundation’s new Residency Program. Artists from around the world come to live in work in the area for several months at a time, taking in the rugged surrounds and working in the clean geometric structures which seem to teeter on the edges of the landscape. The studios were designed by Architect, Todd Saunders who grew up in Newfoundland and founded Saunders Architecture based in Bergen, Norway over 10 years ago.

Mason Journal is thankful for the recent opportunity to speak with Todd Saunders to discuss how his personal relationship to Newfoundland affected his approach to designing the structures, and how his international experiences have given him insight into Canadian Architecture.

Mason Journal: What is your personal connection with Canada, and in particular eastern Canada? Can you briefly describe your professional development in terms of your education and work experience in Canada and abroad?

Todd Saunders: I grew up in Newfoundland and finished high school in Halifax, and then went onto do my undergrad at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). I also spent some time on the east coast in the United States as an exchange student at the Rhode Island School of Design. I spent some time at McGill University, and then did some traveling. Then I lived in Vienna, Berlin then headed back to Canada to Vancouver for a while I ended up settling down in Norway about 15 years ago. I worked at a handful of architecture firms and then started my practice here within a few years; we’ve been operational for about 10 years now.

MJ: How has the infusion of your international professional experience impacted your approach to the Fogo Island Studios which inevitably hit close to home for you?

TS: The main advantage of travelling was that I saw possibilities. I’ve seen some amazing projects around the world. In particular, when I was in Portugal, it struck me how similar and wild the landscape is to Atlantic Canada. I saw so many similarities to Newfoundland in terms of how unique and unexplored it was architecturally in comparison to the landscape. The possibilities are endless rather than restricted in such places. Canadian architects have the advantage of having open spaces to really be unrestricted. We have all the opportunities in the world it’s just a matter of having the ability to really push it.

MJ: The elements of the Northern Atlantic can be described as severe and untamed, yet the local residents have a reputation for being a gentle and generous people with a deep connection to and respect for their land. How have you found the local residents have responded to your approach to your design solution and architectural expression for the Fogo Island Arts Corporation?

TS: There’s a book, written by Robert Melon about historical architecture of the Island called ‘Tilting’. I purposely avoided reading this book prior to designing because I didn’t want the historical details to distort my thought process. I know the place so well, I wanted to trust my gut feeling and base my decisions on intuition.

A few teachers of mine were on a trip to Norway prior to us starting work on Fogo Island. They went to visit The Aurland lookout, another project of ours. When they found out I was the architect design the Fogo Island Studios, they were instrumental in reassuring the community on the island that they were in good hands. They trusted that I had a good understanding of what the place needed.

We had very little feedback from the locals to start with, but we’ve had a lot of feedback now that it’s designed. It was pretty touching really. I spoke at a lecture series at the beginning stages of the project where I presented our ideas. It was emotional for me to stand in front of a crowd of people that reminded me of my past and my upbringing. It struck me how seriously I undertook this endeavour and the amount of responsibility I felt.

Long Studio:

MJ: How do you perceive Fogo Island Arts Corporation will impact the preservation and rejuvenation of the island through arts & culture?

TS: I wouldn’t say preservation because there never was any contemporary art there. I would say it’s rejuvenating the traditional arts by exposing young contemporary artists to traditional craft such as quilting, the use of wool and furniture making. It allows for dialogue which encourages respect for traditional art forms. Since I’ve been travelling back to Newfoundland a lot in the last five years or so, I’ve seen more homes that have been restored with more traditionally local characteristics; replacing vinyl siding with more traditional wood siding that is more indicative of the area. It’s nice to see this display of pride and this connection to our traditions.

MJ: The body of your work, including the Fogo Island Arts Corporation has a strong contemporary sensibility. Can you comment on this design philosophy and your approach to the use of materials and expression of form?

TS: The materials were easy. I wanted to use familiar materials to not surprise the locals, but put them together in a different way. It was almost like an Italian who moves away, comes back home and then cooks differently but with the same ingredients. I paid special attention to detailing and the joinery work. I focused on creating something new with old or familiar means.

In terms of my approach or philosophy towards the project, a lot of inspiration came from Newfoundland writers, musicians and actors. They’re making music based on the traditions of their culture, but it’s completely relevant today. Actors such as Rick Mercer and Rex Murphy haven’t forgotten where they’re from; they are genuine in who they are. My goal was to make a new Newfoundland architecture without copying the past but giving it a point of view in a contemporary context.

MJ: Has this project prompted you to want to do more work in Canada?

TS: We are designing a house at the moment; Villa Murphy, on the sunshine coast in BC and just finished another residence in Salt Spring Island, BC. We’re also in the middle of a cultural center in Labrador. But we also have a lot of work outside of Canada; we just finished a house in Polynesia and we’re working on a bid for a residence in Brussels, as well as a residence on the Turkish coast for a German writer.

MJ: Apart from these upcoming projects, is there anything else we can look forward to from Saunders Architecture?

TS: We’re looking to open an office in Canada over the next two years. Although we’re focused on staying small, we’re still looking to branch out over there. Right now we have about 5 full time employees and another 3 interns most of the time. We’re also looking forward to a book written about our firm by the Swiss publishing company Birkhäuser, due out in September 2012.

Bridge Studio :

Squish Studio:

Tower Studio:


Architect: Saunders Architecture, Bergen, Norway, Principal Architect: Todd Saunders.

Client: Shorefast Foundation, The Fogo Island Arts Corporation

Photography: Saunders Architecture