Urban Form: World Class Architecture Quickly Eroding

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For its population, Newfoundland and Labrador has a very impressive stock of modern architecture.  This province is chock full of stunning modern buildings like the Beth El Synagogue which was suggested for the Massey Medal in the 1950s.  Recently, many of these modern gems have been demolished, obscured beyond recognition, or have had other renovations reducing the buildings’ aesthetic and functional value.

Schools, churches, hospitals, homes and other buildings constructed between the 1920s and 1970s embraced a bold new ideology which presented in stark contrast to the Victorian, Second Empire or general higgley-piggley* architecture of St. John’s and outport communities.  These modern buildings are an important part of our collective history because they are tangible expressions of their particular time.  People attach memories to these places, like looking up at the starry lights as a child in the Arts and Culture Centre Auditorium.  Modern structures are just as important as the Hawthorne Cottage, or Commissariat House.

So, why is our modern architecture at risk?  Are these buildings no longer useful, too expensive to maintain?  Or is it because the general population and policy makers have a lack of aesthetic value for modernism?  It’s likely a combination of these things, but there is still an opportunity to save what we have left, and many people are working towards this goal.

Architect Robert Mellin wrote an incredible and well researched book, called Newfoundland Modern: Architecture in the Smallwood Years, documenting many of the important modern buildings.  Building on Mellin’s work, the City of St. John’s and the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador will now designate and support the restoration of modern buildings.

The Tower Corporate Campus on Waterford Bridge Road is a successful example of revitalized and repurposed modern built heritage. These beautiful buildings and this landscape were originally designed in the 1960s by Bolton, Ellwood and Aimers in association with local architects Horwood and Guihand.  Then, the complex functioned as St. Bride’s College, sometimes referred to as Littledale.

In 2008 the property was purchased and the new owners began the journey to carefully restore the building’s architecture, adapting it from an obsolete use, to one much needed during the oil boom: an inspiring place to work, a corporate campus.  Sheppard Case were the architects and Tract operated as landscape architects for the renovation.  If you haven’t been, walk the grounds, grab a coffee in the summer, it is a truly inspiring space.  Carefully scaled to feel comfortable and sited to shield the wind.  The way the glass meets the concrete, and reflect the landscape is absolutely stunning.

The Tower Corporate Campus, the Arts and Culture Centres, the Gander International Airport and countless other buildings built during this period shaped the province, and reflected the way it felt to be in Newfoundland during this exciting time.  Many I’ve spoken to echo the same sentiment about this era: a cosmopolitan buzz.  These buildings physically express our collective memory and are an important part of our heritage, just as valuable as those large Victorian Homes.

* I once heard Robert Mellin affectionately describe St. John’s architecture as higgley-piggley, which I love!  Roughly, this term means in a random manner.

About Author

Emily Campbell is the founder of the Wandering Pavilion, sits on the Public Awareness Committee of the Newfoundland and Labrador Architects Association, and works at Fougere Menchenton Architecture.

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