Newfoundland Modern: Architecture in the Smallwood Years 1949-1972 by Robert Mellin (McGill-Queens University Press, 2011), $59.95.
When you think of Newfoundland architecture, what comes to mind? Chances are you are thinking of colored rowhouses and saltboxes. Well, this new book by Robert Mellin questions the popular notions of architecture in Newfoundland, and demonstrates that the Modernist era plays an important historical role in our province.
Mellin looks at architecture in Newfoundland between the years 1949 and 1972. He ties the architecture of that era to the political climate, and places emphasis on the role former premier Joey Smallwood had in shaping development in the province. Smallwood saw new architecture as a propaganda tool, useful for convincing the public that his vision of Newfoundland-as-a-Modernist-utopia was working.
There are some fascinating bits of history throughout the book that demonstrate how vibrant this period in architectural history was. Mellin writes about the bridge in Bowring Park by Ove Arup—one of the world’s most brilliant structural engineers, who also made possible the construction of the Sydney Opera House. Then there’s the story about Walter Gropius, Modernist architect and founder of the Bauhaus movement, who expressed interest to the provincial government in designing some of the first buildings for MUN. He was ignored though; at that point Smallwood had come to be skeptical of architects, seeing them as a group who challenged his own views on design.
The book includes some brilliant old photos. It’s fascinating to see how great some of our old buildings looked when they were brand new and finished with their designers’ originally-intended details. Flipping through the book, you really get the sense of how absurd it is that this intense period of growth and creativity is largely uncharted historical territory. A great shot of The Gander airport (see above) shows its original fittings, true to the style, from the floor finish to the furniture and art.
Of course, recognising the value of Modernist architecture is not a new idea. Around the world and in all of the major Canadian cities, academics have rethought the historic value of buildings in that style. But it seems like it’s taken extra long for a scholarly recognition of Newfoundland’s architecture in that style. Is there more-than-normal resistance to appreciating these buildings when they happen to be in Newfoundland? Could it have something to do with their political origins? It could be that they’re bundled up in our minds with painful memories surrounding the politics of the day.
One telling page shows a photo of Smallwood next to one of Le Corbusier, a French architect, designer and urbanist known for his grand Modernist schemes and their insensitivity to local cultures. Aside from their similar taste in fashion (thick round glasses and bowtie), Smallwood and Le Corbusier had some ideologies in common. Smallwood saw resettlement, Modern architecture, and new industry as key elements in his plans for rapid modernisation.
Mellin’s idea that examples of Newfoundland Modernism are historically valuable throws into question some of the popular ideas of heritage architecture in the province. He shows that it’s is a part of who we are today, alongside the more recognised vernacular forms, and reveals the political undercurrents for many buildings from this era which still affect the way we perceive them as part of our cultural landscape.
This is by no means a simple coffee table book on architecture, but it’s relatively accessible, and promises to be of great interest to history buffs and architecture enthusiasts.