Todd Saunders: Social Architect
Todd Saunders is a Canadian architect who lives in Norway. He has been rated as one of the world’s top 5 architects under the age of 50 and he’s been in New Zealand as a judge for the Home of the Year awards. In February I went to a talk he gave in Auckland.
Todd does beautiful work – strong simple thoughtful stuff that I think resonates well with Antipodeans. But his main claim to fame is the work he did on Fogo Island off the coast of Newfoundland [the province where he was born], for a philanthropist called Zita Cobb – another Newfie. She wanted to make a contribution to this society that had been hollowed out after the collapse of the cod fisheries in the North Atlantic in the nineties.
On the face of it, it seemed a small thing – create homes and studios for a few artists and writers who would come to the Island on a full scholarship. Then build a small 5 star hotel.
The results are stunning, not just in terms of the architecture, which responds to the stark coastal landscapes, but also the social benefits, which includes not only quiet fame and more employment, but also the revitalisation of a culture. As the Saunders Architecture website says:
“ . . . Saunders designed the 29 room Fogo Inn as a means towards the island’s economic and cultural survival, but also as a timeless piece of architecture, which would be ‘made just for Fogo’. “
A key focus of the hotel project – the Fogo Island Inn – was to furnish it in the local vernacular, drawing on crafts and processes that defined the Newfoundland style – from furniture to quilts and wallpaper. They brought in young designers from around the world and had them work with the [mostly quite old] local artisans to breathe new life into their traditions. The Fogo Island shop website says:
‘With these handcrafted objects offered by the Fogo Island Shop, centuries of knowledge in boat building and furniture making has been applied to the making of a brand new line of objects that although contemporary in nature, carry the spirit of the past. They are what has been called “handmade modern”.’
I think the spirit of this project is important. At our talk, Todd Saunders was asked, basically, if the fame he achieved through doing this project had changed his life. He said:
“It just gave me confidence that there’s a lot of good people . . .yeah there’s a lot of nice people in the world and hopefully I find them and they find me”
As I watch what’s happening in the USA with the resistance to autocratic forces, and as I’ve listened to some of the more hopeful messages coming [somewhat unexpectedly] from NZ politicians – at Ratana [Gareth Morgan] and on Waitangi Day [Bill English] – it seems to me that this simple sentiment is the foundation we must build on.
Strong happy societies are built on high levels of interpersonal trust – where most people think most people are good and nice. When you deliberately or neglectfully create an out-group you destroy that trust and in doing so, you diminish your own possibilities.
Let’s not do that.