Architectural Terroir: Space, Place and ‘Constructed’ Identity

So I have been working on some interesting ideas thus far in a Spaces and Places Folklore course…

Well, last week I presented those ideas in their barbaric childish form to my prof and classmates. The result was interesting, but I was left with some good points to develop on.

Anyway, I decided on pressing the entire paper because I was relatively happy with it, especially at this point in the course.

Architectural Terroir: Space, Place and ‘Constructed’ Identity
By: Matt C Reynolds


Introduction 3
Vernacular Architecture and Terroir 4
Traditional Forms and Changing Spaces 5
Commercialization, Ubiquity, and Loss of Originality 8
Polite Architecture and Interpretations 10
Bibliography 13


Terroir is not only difficult to explain in words via the English language, but is also difficult to represent amongst North American culture. This is mainly due to commodification and specific market research designed to find the most popular common trend or idea. The following is an attempt to elaborate on the problems of ubiquity in our culture, but also seek out the exceptions. More specifically, an analysis of a localized area of St. John’s and surrounding communities studied [nearly] exclusively.

This argument will be entirely structured on the architecture of Newfoundland and how its inhabitants have literally ‘constructed’ their identity. Often the argument is made that Newfoundland is ‘rural’ and ‘disconnected’, especially in the past. While the intent of this is not to argue against these ideas, it is important to note that the island has been following trends for more than a hundred years architecturally speaking.

We, as North Americans, often associate the term ‘terroir’ with wine. While this is perfectly fine, the concept of terroir runs much deeper than that. The main backing for my argument is not solely based upon the ideas Amy B. Trubek puts forth in The Taste of Place, but more loosely the characteristics she puts forward. I’ve spent two years of my life cooking on the line, and much more than that interested in food and food culture; thus I found Trubek’s book an easy read cover to cover.

I will attempt to bridge the ideas of terroir with both the vernacular architecture of Newfoundland, and then later, polite architecture. It seems terroir as an idea always seems to draw on food, farming, and culinary aspects – I want to avoid this as much as possible and put forth a new way of addressing the issue.

Vernacular Architecture and Terroir

One of the most influential researches and writers in the field of vernacular architecture is Henry Glassie. He specializes in more than this however, and that is what makes his work applicable to my argument and the concept of terroir. Near the beginning of Vernacular Architecture, he states:

“All architects are born into architectural environments that condition their notions of beauty and bodily comfort and social propriety. Before they have been burdened with knowledge about architecture, their eyes have seen, their fingers have touched, their minds have inquired into the wholeness of their scenes. They have begun collecting scraps of experience without regard to the segregation of facts by logical class. Released from the hug of pleasure and nurture, they have toddled into space, learning to dwell, to feel at home. Those first acts of occupation deposit a core connection in the memory” (Glassie 2000, 17).


Essentially, this could be shifted to the idea of terroir; much like grapes grow on a vine and are influenced by all of the surroundings, so are human beings. Glassie talks first about formal training [architect] like the above quote, but it does not necessarily have to be limited to this idea either. With vernacular architecture, often the art of it falls with the physical building techniques of it, rather than the actual overall outcome like presented with polite architecture. In polite architecture, there is usually a concept or idea implemented and a building carried out around the idea in a pleasing manner. The vernacular structure instead exists for function, and with this it carries function as the most important characteristic.

In either model, polite or common, “all creations bespeak their creators… they stand before us as images of will and wit… All are cultural creations, orderings of experience, like poems and rituals” (Glassie 2000, 18).

Traditional Forms and Changing Spaces

Perhaps the most influential determinant in how Newfoundland functioned and was used hinged on the fact that it is an island. As it developed, it did so from numerous outports along the coast, and this most certainly played a role in shaping the styles of shelters that were built. Without getting too deep into the history, I want to establish some of the traditional permanent residences that arise in Newfoundland. There are numerous stages that appear over time, some of which are more organic than others.

The first permanent homes to appear are referred to as a settlers house. “[T]hese homes were built most frequently from 1835-1910. These houses were very rugged looking one-story dwellings and were made from rudimentary materials” (Woodland, n.d.). The settlers home style was characterized by a hall and parlour floor plan, but featured the addition of a ‘linhay’. This linhay played an important role in how the next generations of houses developed, as well as the culture surrounding it. The Newfoundland folk home was centered on this linhay and it was used as both a ‘back-kitchen’ and a rear or side entry to the home. Using the linhay, you would enter directly into the kitchen. This was often where the centralized heating was, as well as the stove (often they were both inclusive).

What developed from this is what is now referred to as the traditional ‘saltbox’ home. It is important to note that this naming is not entirely truthful; a proper saltbox plan was actually relatively rare in Newfoundland. Instead, what appears is what appeared to be a saltbox. With a ‘proper’ form of a saltbox, the roof is longer in the rear and forms one solid line with a uniform pitch all the way down the back (and shallower than the front pitch). With the Newfoundland ‘saltbox’, the similarity was a result of the addition of the linhay, and there was a distinctive break between the main peak of the roof gable and the roof on the linhay section (and often a change in roof pitch). What we can interpret from this was the attempt to follow some sort of style that was trending, but instead took a different view on it.

I want to take this in a different direction at this point, and use a home I worked on in Port Kirwan as an example. When I first started work on the home, it all seemed relatively straight forward, but what I didn’t know is how exactly the home evolved and that it had changed owners at least once. Again, without deep history I want to talk about the second owner of the house, and how the traditional folk form of the house was transformed. The basis of the home I worked on and a short history can both be summed up succinctly with a section taken directly from a field paper I wrote last year,

“When Don bought the home in ’67, it was in fairly rough shape. Besides being left alone for numerous years, Bobby [the previous owner] had been living mainly only on the first floor before he moved out, with a daybed in the living room. This was probably due to the fact that he was elderly in his last years living there. This of course caused the upstairs portion of the home to be particularly in despair. By this time the house had also received some changes to its exterior. It now had a ‘chopped’ roof much like I described near the end of the earlier Newfoundland Vernacular Architecture section. In this case, it was a gable roof to gambrel style; the owner probably seeking a mansard style which was all the rage at the time. Besides this, the rear linhay was also cut in half, and now acted as a porch” (Matt Reynolds 2009).


What I find more interesting about this home however, is how it was actually used from here onward. The new owner, Don Wright, was an artist, boat-builder and more. He really enjoyed working with large materials and large canvases. Besides small additions and changes, he replaced the rear linhay to the full length again utilizing the space as a room, and more importantly made a large studio addition. A local carpenter with the help of Don himself all collectively built the addition in the early 80’s. The studio addition now sits in plain view, and is really a magnificent space. In a sense, drawing upon locals in itself encapsulates terroir because all knowledge and ideas used to create the spaces are localized.

There are multiple reasons as to why I like the space, but more importantly it encapsulates the ideas that I feel represent terroir. Don took into account his surrounds with an end goal of creating a space for artistic work. The studio is attached directly to the side of the home, but really juxtaposes against it. The concept itself draws upon Don’s ideas of what he thinks a studio space should look like; ideas that he has gained from growing up and experiencing other spaces (terroir). Unlike a traditional space, the second floor only covers three-quarters, and the back section is left entirely missing, with a small railing, creating height in the space. Its windows are large and plenty, and lots of light can pour in. Besides the direct building and the techniques used, Don also placed the windows in so that his surroundings can inspire him. In this model, both the direct interpretation of his surrounds as well as past knowledge function together as he creates his artwork. In a sense, all of these things really function to create inspiration for his artwork (but that is a different dimension entirely).



Commercialization, Ubiquity, and Loss of Originality

In North America, we frequently battle the slow but overwhelming trend that things are becoming homogenized and ‘simplified’. In a sense, the standardization makes for an even product every time, but it also strips away the opportunity to make a unique and superior product with ‘character’. I use ‘simplified’ and ‘character’ in quotations as such because these terms are relative, and there are different stances people take in this debate.

Trubek rather obviously has to address the ideas of globalization as she explores the idea of terroir. Since she is focused on wine and food, the easiest target is McDonalds and the French revolt against it. She makes an interesting point, however, on the bottom of page forty-three “the cultural embrace of France’s agrarian legacy and the interest in preserving it means that the taste of place often intersects with notions of authenticity” (Trubek 2008). This notion of authenticity really succinctly sums up the ideas that I was striving for as I explored vernacular architecture in a modern context.

To address this idea of authenticity head on is difficult, however. The main concern is that in this fast-paced modern world, is if anyone even cares if something is authentic anymore. My favourite example of to draw upon is Starbucks, which coffee snobs have rather appropriately coined the term ‘$bux’. Why is it that it has become so popular – because people have become used to it and strive on it. In other words, you get the exact same level of mediocre coffee at every location you go to. Whither you are in a Starbucks around the corner or somewhere in Dubai, the get the same boring, generic décor and the same crappy frivolous coffee. Why people continue to support this I cannot answer.

It seems that the bulk of the North American’s find comfort in familiarity, but I for one would not feel as if I have experienced local culture unless I have been into the local coffee shops, for example. Why travel to a new location to experience the same product – another question I cannot answer in a paper of this nature. I do want to address the presence of authenticity however, but not with coffee because the complexities of this are much too deep and are much too similar to wine.

When we look at vernacular architecture in Newfoundland, we see all sorts of forms. However, when we see a tourism ad or try to define an architecture form for a Newfoundland standard we arrive at a commodified idea. Often what we see are fishing stages (or ‘rooms’), brightly coloured row houses with a mansard roof, or a ‘saltbox’ home. While this is all fine and excellent that our tourism board is doing so well by putting these things forward, it puts into question our ideas of authenticity. In this model, we choose these forms to represent us, and no longer do the styles of the past speak for themselves. The idea is refined, and targeted, so in my mind we are expressing a post-modern version of ‘terroir’, and with this authenticity is questionable.



Polite Architecture and Interpretations

In order to round off the remainder of this argument, I want to examine a piece of architecture in particular. The idea I presented earlier of a post-modern version of ‘terroir’ applies to various interpretations that have arisen in the localized St. John’s area, but perhaps the most controversial of this past decade is The Rooms. This structure sits high in the skyline of St. John’s, and even before its construction started there has been debate as to whither or not it fits into the landscape around it. It was designed by PHB Group, and is a very modern structure with an extensive amount of glass (not exactly a material often used to this extent in Newfoundland).

It is important to step back for a minute, and discuss what exactly tradition is. We must take into account and understand that terroir is only an idea – essentially we are talking about invisible culture or ‘intangible cultural heritage’ as it has been more recently dubbed by contemporary folklorists like Dale Jarvis. As with any form of tradition, it changes from generation to generation, as we take into account all of its ideas and impose our own values on it (perhaps one of the most important things I’ve learned from Stephen Wall at Memorial University).

In a publishing available online by John Parman, he presents the idea of ‘Urban Terroir’. While some of his ideas are complex and entirely out of the scope of my argument, there are some important ideas included which really play into the ideas I am striving to present.

“We need a robust vision of the region’s urbanity that takes lessons from its rich culture of food and wine, not shrinking from creativity, experimentation, and the demotic element that challenges and changes tastes, and is unafraid of outside influences—knowing that the region will absorb them and make them its own” (Parman 2009, 17).


Although drawing upon the culture of California, the idea of a region absorbing a ideas and making them its own is important. “Understanding the region holistically, especially as an ecosystem, would immediately put a halt to insanities like the current pressure to develop…” (Parman 2009, 17).

The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland both refutes and supports Parman’s points. At first, the large development was highly rejected by the locals as a high-rise structure and a waste of money. However, PHB succeeded in accomplishing what they strived for, reinterpreting the traditional fishing stage into a polite architectural from (even if the gabled roof is a little more dramatic). The concept [and concept is purely an architectural idea] is attaching three ‘rooms’, a traditional term for fishing stage, by connecting them with a glass atrium. Given the atrium was simply all glass; a point of entry then became rather confusing. In order to bring back some of the traditional identifiers; they then placed a simple gable-style façade around the entrance to encompass where one should enter. The result was a stylized structure that was taken on by the community because of both the concept and the fact that it not only housed the cities archives, but a useable and friendly art gallery that aided in the artistic revival of the Downtown core.

If I were to try and summarize everything I have presented thus far, the most important parts definitely center on re-interpreting and re-inventing tradition, but also encompassing the fact that our surroundings play heavy influence. The old idea of terroir as our soil, climate, environment, etc, now has another dimension in which urbanity also plays a part. Succinctly, we are bigger than the ‘traditional’ architectural forms the government outlines for us, and until the community embraces an idea as their own, terroir ceases to exist. The very reason why The Rooms is alive and functions today is because the community has embraced it, and thus we have terroir in a modern sense.


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