Newfoundland Modern

Gander Airport International Departure Lounge from Newfoundland Modern by Robert Mellin.

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.


  1. anon2 · February 18, 2011

    putting the words Le Corbusier and Newfoundland in the same article?
    “architecture” is one of the least important aesthetics explored here. we raze the trees to build ugly subdivisions, we blow 45M$ on the Rooms (because the guy who built it was from here? that’s one of the ugliest buildings made in Canada in the last 100 years), we put WAY more energy into box malls and UGLY than we’ll ever put into aesthetics – and they say there’s tons of artists here.
    are they all blind artists?
    no offense to the writer here, but it’s a stretch. it’s like Karl Wells telling me to eat at Ches’s

  2. Ralphy · February 18, 2011

    So because you don’t like the Rooms and Future Shop we shouldn’t understand the Modernist influence on Newfoundland architecture?

    So what if there’s ‘tons of artists’ or not? That has nothing to do with the value or importance of architecture in the province.

    And if architecture is actually under-explored and under-recognized, what should this book review have done instead?

    And who’s this ‘we’? I’m not to blame for your hang-ups.

    lotta angry people on the internet these days

  3. Frank · February 18, 2011

    Um, it looks like the book put the words “Le Corbusier” and “Newfoundland” together before the article. Maybe you should take it up with the Winterset, Southcott, and Manning Award-winning author of the book. I’m sure you could really enlighten him on architectural history in Newfoundland.

  4. anon2 · February 18, 2011

    your mutual defensiveness about our Holy Newfoundland is lame.
    “So what if there’s ‘tons of artists’ or not? That has nothing to do with the value or importance of architecture in the province.”
    art/culture/architecture go together. paintings of icebergs and clapboard houses/Timhortons’s and the Mall/the Rooms go together.
    we are what we build.
    LOOK around. ugly architecture, no effort to even squeeze a few interesting things in.
    do you care?
    no, but you want to defend it anyway! “it’s NL, we need defending, we’re proud of our misgivings!”
    as for the ‘book’ (which no DOUBT is a best seller), I guess it’s a lesson for the writer (like I said, no offense, she’s trying hard to find a real story)-
    “Newfoundland Modern!” you must be without travel to any city of note to think there’s enough content there for a book (must have gotten a grant for that one).
    pick any one neighbourhood in any one city in Europe and you will find more interesting RECENT architecture than will ever happen here. not to mention events surrounding OLD architecture (things like projecting art, graphics, films on them) keeping them relevant to the … wait for it… culture! keeping people proud of the efforts made to make their environs better than what a rat in a maze looks at

  5. John · February 18, 2011

    I think the Rooms is a nice building. Yeah, I said it.

  6. Christopher · February 18, 2011

    Why do I have a gut feeling that anon2 lives in the heritage quarter and wants all the city to be antiquated and dated a 100 or so years.

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