Newfoundland’s contribution to architectural culture and scholarship in Canada is disproportionate to its size. Located on the literal edge of North America, Newfoundland and Labrador did not become a province of Canada until 1949. Today, it is the second smallest province by population and is home to just one university, Memorial University, which has a little over 18,000 students. Despite these isolating forces, however, many Newfoundland writers and scholars have made important contributions to architectural discourse across the country. In particular, they have played a vital role in promoting vernacular architecture studies as a scholarly field. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries immigrants from Ireland and the west of England settled hundreds of communities in natural inlets and bays dotting the island’s shoreline where they adopted an ephemeral language of wood and log framed buildings, including log houses (known as tilts), fishing stages, and drying flakes. The distinctive architecture of Newfoundland’s outports has since become an internationally recognized heritage landscape thanks to the work of a number of scholars, including Shane O’Dea and Peter Coffman (past-president of the SSAC) whose Newfoundland Gothic (Québec: Éditions MultiMondes, 2008) remains a model study of eclesiatical architecture seen through a transnational lens.
Indeed, in Newfoundland vernacular studies are typically the norm rather than the exception. Following the creation of a Department of Folklore at Memorial University in 1968, much of this work has been guided by a folklorist approach to interpreting the built environment that emphasizes the embeddedness of buildings and landscapes in their community context. Luminaries of this type include Gerald Pocius, Richard MacKinnon, and Robert Mellin, among others. Their work is a masterful example of how material culture, drawing, and oral history can complement traditional forms of architectural evidence. After twenty-five years, Gerald Pocius’s A Place to Belong: Community Order and Everyday Space in Calvert, Newfoundland (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991) remains required reading for students and scholars of Canadian architecture and a staple resource in any research methods course. Together with Richard MacKinnon’s Vernacular Architecture in the Codroy Valley (Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2002) and Robert Mellin’s Tilting: House Launching, Slide Hauling, Potato Trenching, and Other Tales from a Newfoundland Fishing Village (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), there is now ample evidence that vernacular studies can enrich our understanding of how social, economic, and environmental relationships shape rural communities and the lives of their inhabitants.
Newfoundland is less well known for its modern architecture. In St. John’s, a post-Confederation building boom produced a legacy of oversized and unsympathetic modernist structures which continue to diminish the period in the eyes of many residents and visitors alike. However, recent scholarship has begun to redress this feeling by highlighting the important heritage of Newfoundland’s twentieth-century architecture. Since being showcased in the exhibition and catalogue Atlantic Modern: The Architecture of the Atlantic Provinces 1950-2000—a project curated by Steven Mannell and published by Dalhousie Architectural Press in 2004—Robert Mellin’s survey book Newfoundland Modern: Architecture in the Smallwood Years, 1949-1972 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011) has revealed the profoundly political stakes of twentieth-century design in Newfoundland as provincial leaders sought to modernize their constituents by immersing them in the broader, North American cultural context.
Today, Newfoundland’s architectural heritage is promoted and protected by two groups. The Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust is a membership organization dedicated to preserving the Province’s built heritage. The Trust also administers the annual Southcott Awards program which honours excellence in building restoration and in the design of new buildings that contribute to their community context. The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador is a government run organization that protects registered heritage structures across the Province and helps draw attention to these architectural resources during an annual heritage day.
We here at the SSAC could all do with a little more of Newfoundland, and she would surely welcome us.
Dustin Valen, SSAC/SÉAC Representative for Newfoundland and Labrador