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Art & Architecture Architect Todd Saunders builds on the past with a new Nunatsiavut cultural centre in Labrador

The 14,000-square-foot centre curves – as traditional illusuak did.

Bent René Synnevåg

Todd Saunders came to Labrador and found a mystery. The renowned architect was in Nain to design a new cultural centre for Nunatsiavut, the Inuit region of Labrador; it was clear that the new centre must draw on local building traditions. “But that was the riddle of the whole thing,” he recalls. “Nunatsiavut had no architecture.”

Or more precisely, no permanent architecture. The Labrador Inuit are traditionally nomadic, although after their communities were colonized, most settled into permanent houses. There was an older tradition, however, in the sod houses in which Labrador Inuit had historically spent summers. The word for these is illusuak.

The form of the building pairs well with the Nunatsiavut culture.

Bent René Synnevåg/Handout

And that is the name of the 14,000-square-foot centre itself, which will open this fall. Seen from above, it curves – as traditional illusuak did. It is wrapped in spruce, cut and installed by hand. And it stands near the water, sited “to keep in contact with the water as well as the land,” Saunders says.

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It is a meaningful project for the community in Nain: Built using local trades, it will house government offices, a theatre and a space with an exhibition about the community’s history, as well as Parks Canada offices for the Torngat Mountains National Park. “We’re hoping that it will bring together youth and elders to celebrate the language and culture of Nunatsiavut,” says Brenda Jararuse, director of culture for Nunatsiavut.

The form of the building “is very unique, and it pairs well with our culture,” Jararuse says. “An illusuak is traditionally what we used as a gathering place, and this building will be part of the future of Labrador Inuit.”

This is also an important project for Saunders. Based in Bergen, Norway, Saunders is a native of Gander, N.L., and he’s best known for designing the Fogo Island Inn off Newfoundland’s eastern coast.

The building’s form has started conversations about the way previous generations had lived.

Bent René Synnevåg

Bent René Synnevåg

With Fogo, Saunders explored a deeply local architecture informed by the do-it-yourself building techniques of coastal Newfoundland and stocked with locally made furniture. That project helped Saunders build a global reputation, as did his Aurland Lookout in Norway – a viewing platform (designed with a partner) that is a great question mark made of wood. You walk along its decking, and seemingly approach the treacherous edge of a fjord; only a wall of clear glass holds you back.

The common threads in his work are traditional craft and a Nordic restraint in tension with bold sculptural impulses.

In Nain, this played out successfully. In photographs, the building is radically simple in form, with few details to complicate its wooden skin. It sits against the existing buildings of the town, similar in scale and material, apart but not above the more workaday structures. According to Jararuse, the building’s form has started conversations among neighbours, including discussions of the way previous generations had lived. “Even here, not a lot of people know our own history,” Jararuse says. “So to take that, and put in a new building that will house our traditional language and cultural programs, makes a lot of sense.”

The process, Saunders says, was almost entirely positive – except that his office was not allowed to collaborate on the exhibition design for the finished space, something they were eager to do. “I’d be there to paint the walls, if they’d let me,” the architect says with a laugh.

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Saunders's studio is currently designing homes in Alberta and Ontario.

Bent René Synnevåg

The seeming success of this project, an unusual and specific work of public architecture, is rare in North America these days. As I’ve written, government hiring and purchasing procedures tend to be cumbersome and not to create good places. Sauders is outspoken on this subject. “The way [governments] are hiring architects – it’s not going to produce good architecture,” he says. Conversation and a back-and-forth are crucial, he says.

In general, Saunders says, he is increasingly focused on public projects. “As an office, we’re looking for projects where there is a higher motivation in place,” he says, “and not just checking the bureaucratic boxes.”

His studio is now designing a library in Greenland and a church in northern Sweden. In Canada, they are designing private houses in Alberta and Ontario, and also one communal building: an amenity building at a development called Cypress Village in West Vancouver, together with architects BattersbyHowat. That is a long way from Nain, in every sense.

Saunders says he’s eager to design public buildings back in Canada. And any town would be lucky to get a place such as Illusuak: carefully and sensitively designed to speak to a community’s values.

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