Strange & Familiar: The Architecture of Fogo Island

After the collapse of the fishery, Fogo Island’s main employer, the Newfoundland island was in dire straits until the return of native islander Zita Cobb, who funneled her self-made fortune into an ambitious project combined innovation, artistic vision, environmental responsibility, and community involvement in order to revitalize the ailing Fogo Island economy.

In recent years, the Fogo Island Inn has become known as a rather uniquely Canadian success story. The driving force behind the Inn is Zita Cobb, an eighth generation resident of the island who left Newfoundland to find extraordinary success in the fiber optics industry, and returned many years later to use her considerable resources and knowledge in order to help rejuvenate her hometown, which had suffered with the collapse of the cod industry. Cobb established Fogo Island as a hotspot for geo-tourism and artistic exploration through the creation of the Fogo Island Inn, the process of which is explored in the film Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island, which will be screened on February 26th at Museum London.

The Fogo Island Inn describes itself as “the embodiment of an ecological ethic”, and has generated a great deal of interest in its environmentally oriented, socially responsible, and minimalist philosophy. As one of the first hotels to feature sustainability and community well-being as the central ideology that directs its existence, the success of the Fogo Island Inn reflects a major change in the cultural mindset. Although we are living in what Ariel Levy first called “the Age of Kale”, where much of the public has wholeheartedly embraced ideas such as mindfulness, organic produce, and meditation in order to achieve a more meaningful connection to the world around them, most hotels haven’t adjusted to the development and instead progress the ethos of extravagance that Zita Cobb and other trailblazers have begun to rally against.

The Fogo Island Inn also functions as an important example of the profound importance of arts to the health of a community. Upon realizing that her hometown was suffering profoundly from the downturn in the fishing industry, Cobb turned to the arts to save her town. Believing that the stark landscapes and chilly isolation of Fogo Island as well as its rich and varied cultural heritage could serve as a unique source of inspiration for creators, Cobb began to invite artists to the island in an attempt to revitalize the island and draw interest from the outside world. While introducing foreign artists to Fogo Island, Cobb also worked to introduce the art of Fogo to its visitors, as almost all the furniture and furnishings in the inn were sourced from local artisans.

Community involvement is another major focus of the inn, which reinvests almost all of its profits back into Fogo Island. While Cobb wanted to use her business experience breathe life into the island’s failing economy, she found her hometown traditions and history to be equally important to her endeavor. When planning the specifics of the inn, Cobb says she made all major decisions based on the same series of questions: “What do we know as a community? What do we love? What do we miss and what can we do about it?”

At a time where we as a planet are grappling with the question of how to balance the clearly urgent need to undo or at least mitigate some of the damage we doing to the environment, while also balancing the economic needs of nations, the Fogo Island Inn stands as an example of the sorts of solutions that can come from the synthesis of innovation and tradition. Cobb’s achievement stands as a reminder that enterprise need not succeed at the expense of the health of the planet and the populace around it; on the contrary, caring about sustainability and community wellness can be in itself a source of success.

Strange and Familiar, which will be playing at Museum London on February 26th, details the creation of the Fogo Island Inn and the philosophy that led to this unprecedented success. A mix between tradition and innovation, technology and nature, and luxury and sustainability, the Fogo Island Inn, and Zita Cobb’s success, is a testament to what can be achieved with a strong vision and the support of the community.

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