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Building and Learning in a Place

The Fogo Island Inn tells several stories at once – amongst them one on the power of internationally acclaimed architecture in a stunningly beautiful and remote location, to one of the power of local ingenuity, craftsmanship and community building.

Our knowledgeable guide skillfully navigates us through the vast building standing like a ship moored on a rising shoal. He takes us from the expansive views from the airy rooftop terrace where steam rises from hot pools and down to the inside through the bright halls and rooms populated with colourful quilts and cushions, and ingenious chairs and benches created by local hands. He even leads us through the basement maze of cisterns, pipes and mechanical elements that power the inn through the harshest winters imaginable. Such an impressive structure requires the care of multitudes, and the people of Fogo Island have learned not only how to operate what must have seemed at first an alien visitor, but how it and they themselves can transform and develop their island home together.

Transforming educational practices has been a key focus in developing Inuit society over the last decades and was a key issue at the Inuit Settlement, Housing, Landscapes and Identity symposium held at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The architectural dimension of this focus was demonstrated by Marie-Josée Therrien (Ontario College of Art and Design University) who, in her historic review of school architecture in Nunavik, revealed how the traditional separation between school and community has changed in recent years, allowing traditional skills, craftsmen and craftswomen be increasingly important parts of the education.

We presented papers at this symposium with a focus on settlements and cities in other parts of the shared Arctic region. For a few years we have been following the community-based local cultural empowerment initiative in Vardø under the leadership of Svein-Harald Holmen. In this easternmost city of Norway, he and a handful of fellow local enthusiasts have worked diligently to restore abandoned and dilapidated buildings – an activity that has over the years become part of a wider set of efforts to consolidate the local community and attract visitors through the tools of art, architecture and culture.

Meanwhile, in the easternmost region of Canada – a country an ocean away – Fogo Island has in recent years graced the covers of many an international architecture magazine. This island, with almost the same population as Vardø, has similarly experienced a decline in fishing. It maintained, however, a significant cultural heritage – and has, also like Vardø, used architecture and culture as key elements in community re-building. Vardø has the Steilneset, a haunting memorial to the victims of witch burning by Swiss ‘star-chitect’ Peter Zumptor and famed artist Louis Bourgois, and Fogo has the Fogo Island Inn designed by architect Todd Saunders, a Newfoundlander based in Bergen, Norway.

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Steilneset, Vardø. Photo: Morgan Ip.

Both places also feature smaller landscape-integrated architecture installations – in Vardø in the form of bird watching infrastructure by local architectural practice Biotope, and on Fogo in the form of equally sculptural artists’ residences dotting the island landscape and also by Saunders.

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Bird watching hide by Biotope (Vardø) and artist’s residence by Todd Saunders (Fogo Island). Photo: Morgan Ip.

The exclusive Fogo Island Inn was constructed using local labour, handcraft and skills. Today, only locals are employed in the hotel, and while some island residents were sceptical in the early stages of construction, the effort to hire and train locals as critical employees, to contribute to social programs and events, and even to invite residents of Fogo and the Change Islands to complimentary stays appears, at least at first-hand, to have ameliorated some of these reservations.

Inside the Inn, local craftsmanship and handicraft are showcased through furniture, carpets, pillows and other interior details, all high end products available to the global luxury market for online purchase and delivery. Each of these products contributes to the narrative of the hotel, providing a sense of place and of local community, which seems attractive to the international clientele.

Conversely, the Steinnesset in Vardø was designed and constructed by outside builders – something that caused resentment in some of the local population. While the monument has over time come to be seen as a positive contribution to the community it plays a comparatively less direct role in the islands economy than that filled by the Fogo Island Inn. Some would even argue that the attraction of Vardø is associated with not having been discovered by tourists – that there is beauty in its photogenic decay and the seemingly authentic small boat fishing fleet sharing the harbour with seals and a huge diversity of birds.

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Street art in Vardø and heritage architecture on Fogo Island. Photo: Morgan Ip.

The Fogo Island Inn’s focus on design, food and cultural landscape management has provided support for local knowledge transmission, such as the building techniques of punt boats and the creative application of these techniques in furniture design. This promotes an embedded learning or relearning of crafts and skills, but also broader forms of education as critical component of the cultural framework set up by the Shorefast Foundation.

A similar form of socio-cultural learning can also be observed in Vardø. Here professionals in the arts, architecture and building restoration field have facilitated extended knowledge transfer. Builders have taken up past skills to be able to restore the old buildings, and expertise has been developed among local enthusiasts and professionals with regards to cultural management, government relationships and even international networking within various cultural fields.

The situations of Vardø and Fogo Island have many similarities. The place-building processes that Vardø and Fogo are going through work on many levels and include changes to infrastructure and economy. An important and long-term change is the opportunities for learning that they offer for each of the locals and thus the community, thereby widening their perspectives for place-specific practices.

 

(Photo of Fogo Island Inn by Lisbet Harboe)

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