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Charles Cullum with a catamaran he designed. (Handout)
Charles Cullum with a catamaran he designed. (Handout)

CHARLES CULLUM ARCHITECT, 86

Architect changed Newfoundland’s cityscape Add to ...

Charles Cullum trained in the International Style, with its Bauhaus and New Brutalism influences of wondrous poured concrete forms, but as a practising architect he was open-minded to developments and ideas.

This adaptability fuelled an enormous range of projects, including libraries, churches, prisons and catamarans, completed from Come By Chance to Macau. As just one example, he funnelled his myriad skills into planning the Johnson GEO Centre (2002), a striking interpretation centre built largely underground and beautifully integrated into an excavated glacial formation on Signal Hill in St. John’s. Mr. Cullum developed the design (including the surrounding trails) and supervised the construction, which includes multiple exhibit areas, a theatre, a celestial gallery and a heating and cooling system channelled from six geothermal wells.

“We wanted to tell the story of the geology of Newfoundland and Labrador, which goes back almost to the beginning of the formation of the Earth,” said Paul Johnson, the philanthropist behind the Centre.

Mr. Johnson also worked for 25 years with Mr. Cullum on such civic enhancement projects as the Memorial University Clock Tower, the Railway Coastal Museum and Harbourside Park. Even in such recognized company, the GEO Centre was so remarkable an achievement that both men were made honorary members of the Professional Engineers and Geoscientists Newfoundland & Labrador.

Provincially, nationally and internationally, Mr. Cullum created designs and master plans for schools, clinics, golf resorts, university campuses, Canada’s first radio-astro-physical observatory in Penticton, B.C. (1959), the Argentia Ferry Terminal Passenger Building and private residences – including two homes for his family. In short, just about anything and everything.

In turn, he met just about everyone, from Queen Elizabeth II to Buckminster Fuller.

The latter encounter was in 1977, when, as president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC), he presented Mr. Fuller with a Gold Medal. They got along well – Mr. Cullum had designed a geodesic dome house for visual artist and critic Peter Bell, and they were both, Mr. Cullum said, “sailboat addicts;” he was soon joining Mr. Fuller on sailing trips off Bear Island near Nantucket, Mass.

Mr. Fuller was very curious about Newfoundland, and Mr. Cullum taught him such phrases as “some awful” (meaning “full of awe,” retaining its origins from centuries before), in preparation for a hoped-for visit, but Mr. Fuller died before that could happen.

The former was on Memorial University’s campus in 1978, when the Queen, accompanied by Prince Philip, performed a sod-turning for the new library, named for her. Mr. Cullum, in a borrowed cap and gown (he didn’t have his own because the Architectural Association School of Architecture he’d graduated from wasn’t then a university) was to demonstrate a model of the library.

The Queen was formal and almost silent, Mr. Cullum said, but the Duke of Edinburgh asked, “Did you perpetrate any of these buildings?” As Mr. Cullum was restricted to murmuring yeses and nos, he was unable to explain that the campus master plan had been executed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, principal of the AA School of Architecture when Mr. Cullum first studied there, but it was never followed. In fact, in 1985, Mr. Cullum was commissioned to revise it.

He also met then-prime minister John Diefenbaker (twice). But, most thrilling for Mr. Cullum, he met prominent American architect and critic Philip Johnson in 1977 when he chaired the jury for the Louis Sullivan Design Awards, and Mr. Cullum was a member.

Anyone he talked to, from old friends to new professional acquaintances, found him an engaged, curious polymath with a self-deprecating sense of humour.

Mr. Cullum died March 4 in St. John’s after a brief bout of pneumonia.

Charles Herbert Cullum was born Jan. 18, 1927 in New Holland, Lincolnshire, England, and grew up in East Halton, in the romantically named Rosemary Cottage. His mother, Elsie Mary (formerly Chappel), was the daughter of a farmer/entrepreneur nicknamed Saltingtub Willie, who blended raising cows and sheep with work as a tailor and owning a general store and bakery. She was industrious, too, lending books and dealing small-scale in other trades.

His father, Arthur, was a labourer at the oil tanks, but his real vocation was music, and he conducted the local Primitive Methodist chapel choir. Mr. Cullum had an elder sister, Joyce.

From his first day at grammar school, Mr. Cullum was placed a year ahead (he credited his reading of The Children’s Encyclopedia at home). Later, he skipped another year.

At 17, looking toward architecture, he submitted an essay and sketchbook of watercolours to the School of Architecture in London, and was accepted. On one Christmas vacation he worked the coal hoists on Immingham Dock, but was fired for his (lack of) brake control which led to several coal trucks being dumped in the Humber River. He was trying to save money for his marriage to a trainee picture restorer, Enid Sylvia Baines, which took place in his fourth year.

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