The architect behind Fogo Island Inn sits down with Western Living to talk experiential architecture, international projects and Canadian kindness.

Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders became a household name when he designed the world-renowned Fogo Island Inn in 2013, and he has since created stunning works of architecture around the world—including, most recently, a series of homes in Carraig Ridge outside of Banff, Alberta. He joins our Designers of the Year jury this year and spoke with our editorial director, Anicka Quin, when he was in town.

(Photo: Martin Tessler.)

Your firm specializes in experience-based architecture—from artist retreats to extreme sports centres. What design challenges do these offer you as an architect?I’ll tell you the reason I want to go in that area: I want my personal interests in life and architecture to criss-cross. I’ve lived in eight different countries. I like travelling, and I want to combine my hobby, travelling, with my architecture. I also have a lot of friends who are artists, and I designed the artist studios on Fogo. I’m doing artist studios now—they’re extremely good projects to work on. It’s quite fulfilling, and the program is very different—there’s a lot of freedom. It felt good doing this sort of project, and I want more of that in my life.

I’ve been doing a lot of private projects. What I’ve noticed about the private projects is that they’re very good to get built very quickly, but not a lot of people experience them. With Fogo, it’s been very good with people coming there: Gwyneth Paltrow, David Letterman, the Prince of Monaco. That’s a good feeling—when I sit eating dinner at night, I meet all kinds of interesting people. It’s a different way of experiencing architecture.

Fogo Island Inn is a five-star inn owned by the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island, Newfoundland. (Photo: Bent René Synnevåg.) Saunders designed both Fogo Island Inn’s main 29-room inn and its artist studios. (Photo: Bent René Synnevåg) (Photo: Bent René Synnevåg)

And the extreme sports centres—you’re building those because extreme sports have been a part of your life?

Yeah, and every time I experience it, I experience it with bad architecture. We’re in discussion with some heli-ski companies. They get all these Japanese and European clients who are interested in very high-level architecture, but the resorts they make are terrible. They’re all exactly the same. There’s not one heli-skiing company that’s saying, “Our market is wealthy Europeans who like architecture, and we’re providing it.” These heli-ski companies would be the first people to do it in Canada. We’re trying to get them to see that the contemporary architecture we did for Fogo Island can really help them.

What else do you have coming up?

I’m working on a contemporary stone sculpture museum on the west coast of Sweden. And I’m doing a nature trail in northern Sweden with 14 very different buildings. The client owns a very successful hotel that was designed by Olson Kundig. They want to expand what guests do there—they have a walking trail, and they asked me to do whatever I wanted. So I designed a little library, maybe 15 square metres. You can go with two or three people to read books and light the fire.  And then, walking farther, I designed some saunas by a lake. Then a church, where people can get married. Farther on, I designed a dining hall, which has a Michelin-starred chef who lives in the same village. There are five cabins for guests and a couple of other programs. They loved it.

You were allowed to choose what the buildings would be?

I do that with a lot of my projects. I don’t like being given a brief—it’s half the fun, dreaming up ideas for the clients. We prefer that the client does not decide too early. The decisions you get to make there always begin with a blank page, with no preconceived ideas. We’ve done other projects where they’ve told us exactly what they wanted, and when you start understanding the site and the needs, it was actually wrong. But they were so married to this idea—we kind of talked them out of it, but it was so much energy to agree on what was needed.

Saunders is designing five homes for Carraig Ridge, a nature-focused, architect-designed community just outside of Banff, Alberta. (Photo: Bent René Synnevåg.) (Photo: Bent René Synnevåg.)

You have these projects all over the world. Are there similarities, or does your work shift according to local culture?

It’s a good question, because I actually don’t want to be so global. It just happened. I enjoy it, but it comes with an enormous amount of responsibility, because architecture is cultural. Norway, I understand the culture there, but it took me 20 years to understand it, so I feel very comfortable there. Canada, I understand the culture to a certain degree. Newfoundland, I really understand it. The project in Newfoundland turned out so well because I didn’t have to study the culture. Whereas, just after Newfoundland, I did a project in Istanbul, and I didn’t draw until I had spent a lot of time there. It was a lot more effort. I take it quite seriously.

Right now we’re doing projects in Morocco, and I’m studying their construction culture. Then we’re doing Costa Rica and Bali, then I’m going to Patagonia. I’ve done projects in Polynesia and in Finland. There are common denominators in my architecture—for example, it’s very respectful of the site. That’s why I think a lot of these people call us. They have these beautiful sites and they don’t want to mess them up, and they see that we respect that.

But visually speaking, it’s all different. Every project we do has a different program, and it’s based on the people who live there. So now we’re doing a house in New Zealand, but it’s quite similar to Scandinavia and Canada. Sometimes you arrive at these places and there are a lot more similarities than differences.

So what similarities do you see?There’s a rawness, a roughness in the architecture. I don’t want to criticize American architecture, but the contemporary American architects are very hung up on materialistic, expensive stuff that doesn’t really matter. With the project I did on Fogo, you can buy all that stuff at Home Hardware. I try to focus on functionality. Studying at McGill and then going to Germany, things had to work.

In Istanbul, you said you spent a long time there. What influences did you pull in?

The density, how they live. Families of 14 can live together; everyone is comfortable with it. It’s the same thing I see in the Netherlands. You’re walking down the streets and the sidewalks and you look down, and there’s somebody’s kitchen; they’re sitting in their underwear with their wife drinking coffee, and nobody cares. Personal space is different.

The materials in Istanbul are quite different; they’re quite cheap. It’s a bit sad, because this Islamic and Eastern architecture wasn’t brought into the 20th century. That’s what I was trying to do, to ask, “How can we use these cheap, modern materials but pay homage to some pieces of the past?” We’re using playful forms with Islamic tiles and colours on a larger scale.

How many people are on your team now?

We were 10 or 15, but I didn’t like it. I’m down to 10. I almost died a year and a half ago. I was in an avalanche in Japan, with a Canadian guide—it changed my life. I said I needed a year where I could focus on my health. I cut the team down to the five best people I had. We actually made more money with five than we did with 15. I like these little groups of five or six people. I used to play hockey, and I was a goalie. There were five people in front of me. It’s more my mental capacity.

I hear that from a lot of architects and designers—they prefer having a small team around them because they don’t want to let go of the creative process themselves.

It’s very personal. It should be. And I can’t be everywhere all the time. We have a guy working for us in Seattle, and another guy in Lisbon, another in Budapest. We run offices, and we’re always on the move. We’re meeting in Stockholm, meeting in Toronto, meeting in New York. We’re flying to Bali. The way we work—I’m sketching on the airplane and taking a picture in WhatsApp, going to sleep and seeing a picture in a 3D model when I wake up. I can’t believe the way we work sometimes.

What would excite you enough to build a project in Vancouver?

I’d draw a garbage can if it were exciting. It’s a chemistry thing with the clients. I’ve looked at all my clients in the last 10 years, and they’re all eccentric, and they’re risk takers. They’re not afraid of failure. If I haven’t done a church, they’re not afraid to ask me to do a church. They’re confident. Money is a part of the equation, but it isn’t the guiding factor. When I’m in a meeting with a client, if we don’t talk about money, it’s actually a good sign—they’re more interested in architecture, and the money they’ve got sorted out. They need ideas, and we provide very good ideas. And the ideal client, they’re just kind and nice. Everyone in Canada is really kind. In other places we’ve been, it’s a dirty game sometimes, and I don’t like that.