Houses tumbling into the sea, houses washing up on shore. In the exhibition, the two projection pieces will float in the centre of the room. It feels as if the show needs something else to anchor it, something planted firmly in the physical world. I imagined finding an artifact that had been eroded by the water, something that had once been part of a building. A chunk of rounded brick or wood I could suspend from the ceiling, to visually echo the virtual falling houses. I asked a few friends where to look, and someone suggested Ferryland.
Another friend kindly offered to drive me to Ferryland, where we soon found ourselves on a beach dotted with red bricks, too many to count. They seemed lost and out of place against the grey stones. A student working at the nearby interpretive centre said she thought the bricks had come from renovations to the church up the hill, or when they demolished an old school. Someone else told me they had been used as ballast in British ships. In the walled garden beside the interpretive centre, a few salvaged bricks had been incorporated into the whimsical cobblestone paths.
A brick is designed to fit in a hand. The worn clay of the beach bricks was almost warm to the touch, but dry and abrasive. Collecting them felt a bit like berrypicking, the ripe red and orange blobs clinging demurely to bits of mortar. Some of the ones I picked up had a gold glassy surface, as if the combination of sand, salt water and sun had somehow glazed them over time. The bricks near the water were oblong like beachstones, many having lost their rectangular shape entirely, and a few yellow ones had crumbled to almost nothing. Others further up the beach were still sharp-cornered, and clearly stamped with the name “PELLEY”.
I had hoped to find a large rounded cluster of bricks, but found myself intrigued by the way the individual broken bricks resembled houses, the rectangular impressions suggesting little doors. I wandered down the beach, gathering an armful while on the lookout for bigger specimens. I waded out into the waves to drag up a half-buried cluster, and found several others in a pile of fill below the roadway overlooking the water. Reaching the far end of the beach, I discovered a large block of about 30 bricks all attached, about the width of a chimney. It was too heavy to lift, and probably too big to fit in the trunk. I carried the roundest of the brick clusters back to the car, along with about twenty of the broken half-bricks.
A few mornings later, reading Robert Mellin’s wonderful Newfoundland Modern: Architecture in the Smallwood Years, I stumbled upon the history of the Pelley bricks:
Local brick was known to be of poor quality. […] In the late 1950s, Malcolm Pelley wrote many letters to Premier Smallwood, pleading for government funding to support the construction of a tunnel kiln to fire face brick. Once built, the kiln never worked as promised, and the quality of the brick was poor. In a letter to Smallwood dated 12 July 1962, Pelley wrote: “I have had over 75 years experience in brick manufacture and can assure you these bricks will last truly as long as the South Side Hills.” […] It soon became apparent that there were problems with Pelley bricks. Architect William MacCallum told me that the brick on exterior cladding of the Nurses’ Residence had to be painted not long after construction, since the brick was absorbing too much water.
So the bricks were manufactured locally, and not particularly well. They’re not really very old, but are already falling apart, clay eagerly returning to earth. I’d set out to find a relic of the way things used to be built, some evidence of a lasting architectural presence or authenticity. But the Ferryland bricks turned out to be more like the big new houses: not really designed with this landscape in mind, not really built to last. A pale imitation of elsewhere, a dream half-realized.
In Ferryland, in the little tea room by the beach, we had pea soup strong enough to stand a spoon in. Driving back through Bay Bulls, a curve in the road offered a clearer view of the new constructions. There they were, huge houses crouching in their craters of bare earth. A fusillade of beige, yellow-brown and bruised red, torn out of the pine-clad hills, like bombs going off.