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Architect changed Newfoundland’s cityscape

Charles Cullum with a catamaran he designed.


Charles Cullum trained in the International Style, with its Bauhaus and New Brutalism influences of wondrous poured concrete forms, but as a practising architect he was open-minded to developments and ideas.

This adaptability fuelled an enormous range of projects, including libraries, churches, prisons and catamarans, completed from Come By Chance to Macau. As just one example, he funnelled his myriad skills into planning the Johnson GEO Centre (2002), a striking interpretation centre built largely underground and beautifully integrated into an excavated glacial formation on Signal Hill in St. John's. Mr. Cullum developed the design (including the surrounding trails) and supervised the construction, which includes multiple exhibit areas, a theatre, a celestial gallery and a heating and cooling system channelled from six geothermal wells.

"We wanted to tell the story of the geology of Newfoundland and Labrador, which goes back almost to the beginning of the formation of the Earth," said Paul Johnson, the philanthropist behind the Centre.

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Mr. Johnson also worked for 25 years with Mr. Cullum on such civic enhancement projects as the Memorial University Clock Tower, the Railway Coastal Museum and Harbourside Park. Even in such recognized company, the GEO Centre was so remarkable an achievement that both men were made honorary members of the Professional Engineers and Geoscientists Newfoundland & Labrador.

Provincially, nationally and internationally, Mr. Cullum created designs and master plans for schools, clinics, golf resorts, university campuses, Canada's first radio-astro-physical observatory in Penticton, B.C. (1959), the Argentia Ferry Terminal Passenger Building and private residences – including two homes for his family. In short, just about anything and everything.

In turn, he met just about everyone, from Queen Elizabeth II to Buckminster Fuller.

The latter encounter was in 1977, when, as president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC), he presented Mr. Fuller with a Gold Medal. They got along well – Mr. Cullum had designed a geodesic dome house for visual artist and critic Peter Bell, and they were both, Mr. Cullum said, "sailboat addicts;" he was soon joining Mr. Fuller on sailing trips off Bear Island near Nantucket, Mass.

Mr. Fuller was very curious about Newfoundland, and Mr. Cullum taught him such phrases as "some awful" (meaning "full of awe," retaining its origins from centuries before), in preparation for a hoped-for visit, but Mr. Fuller died before that could happen.

The former was on Memorial University's campus in 1978, when the Queen, accompanied by Prince Philip, performed a sod-turning for the new library, named for her. Mr. Cullum, in a borrowed cap and gown (he didn't have his own because the Architectural Association School of Architecture he'd graduated from wasn't then a university) was to demonstrate a model of the library.

The Queen was formal and almost silent, Mr. Cullum said, but the Duke of Edinburgh asked, "Did you perpetrate any of these buildings?" As Mr. Cullum was restricted to murmuring yeses and nos, he was unable to explain that the campus master plan had been executed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, principal of the AA School of Architecture when Mr. Cullum first studied there, but it was never followed. In fact, in 1985, Mr. Cullum was commissioned to revise it.

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He also met then-prime minister John Diefenbaker (twice). But, most thrilling for Mr. Cullum, he met prominent American architect and critic Philip Johnson in 1977 when he chaired the jury for the Louis Sullivan Design Awards, and Mr. Cullum was a member.

Anyone he talked to, from old friends to new professional acquaintances, found him an engaged, curious polymath with a self-deprecating sense of humour.

Mr. Cullum died March 4 in St. John's after a brief bout of pneumonia.

Charles Herbert Cullum was born Jan. 18, 1927 in New Holland, Lincolnshire, England, and grew up in East Halton, in the romantically named Rosemary Cottage. His mother, Elsie Mary (formerly Chappel), was the daughter of a farmer/entrepreneur nicknamed Saltingtub Willie, who blended raising cows and sheep with work as a tailor and owning a general store and bakery. She was industrious, too, lending books and dealing small-scale in other trades.

His father, Arthur, was a labourer at the oil tanks, but his real vocation was music, and he conducted the local Primitive Methodist chapel choir. Mr. Cullum had an elder sister, Joyce.

From his first day at grammar school, Mr. Cullum was placed a year ahead (he credited his reading of The Children's Encyclopedia at home). Later, he skipped another year.

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At 17, looking toward architecture, he submitted an essay and sketchbook of watercolours to the School of Architecture in London, and was accepted. On one Christmas vacation he worked the coal hoists on Immingham Dock, but was fired for his (lack of) brake control which led to several coal trucks being dumped in the Humber River. He was trying to save money for his marriage to a trainee picture restorer, Enid Sylvia Baines, which took place in his fourth year.

His studies were interrupted by Royal Air Force service; he enlisted in March, 1944, and served in the Far East. In 1947 he was in Japan, No. 2 deckhand (out of two) on a rescue launch with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force.

During a visit by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, he fumbled while casting a line, fell into the frigid water between the boat and wharf, and evaded the still-churning propeller by "learning to swim in record time," and treading water while MacArthur completed his inspection.

Alongside this misadventure, his military service introduced him to Japanese architecture, art and philosophy, which left a lifelong impression. He was demobbed in April, 1948.

Mr. Cullum graduated from the School of Architecture in 1952. The Cullums and their new daughter, Caroline, then had a basement apartment on Hamilton Terrace, where, in lieu of part of the rent, they had to stoke the furnace with coal twice a day.

Then his father-in-law bought three cottages in Burbage, in Wiltshire, and offered them Honeysuckle Cottage – two rooms plus a kitchen – sweetly named but infested with mice.

Mr. Cullum, who found work in nearby Swindon, designed the refurbishing of the row as well as crafting an innovative 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom house for the family, with an open plan downstairs and all the mod-cons channelled with a ground-breaking heat pump cooling the pantry and pushing the heat into the hot-water tank.

In the late 1950s, the Cullums, now a family of four with son Hugh, immigrated to Canada, first stopping in Gleneagle, Que. They had just $50, but Mr. Cullum had a job with federal Public Works in Ottawa, which would see them crisscross the country for the next several years, from Horseshoe Bay, B.C., to Saint John and Halifax.

In 1969, he joined Horwood, Campell and Guihan, bringing the Cullums to St. John's. They looked towards St. Philip's, just outside the capital, where there was space to build a family home, great views over Conception Bay, Nfld., and good, well-drained soil. A well had to be dug and a plumbing system installed, and Mr. Cullum also paid for an electricity line, which now feeds more than 50 homes.

He planted maples, birch, larch, poplars, willows, laburnums, apples and pears, and built and stocked a trout pond.

He later founded his own private firms – first The Architect's Guild, then Cullum and Cullum Ltd. – with the mantra, he wrote, of "Clarity, Completeness, Conciseness."

Many of the next generation of Newfoundland architects, including Dominic Lippa and Robert Mellin, found work and encouragement with him. "A lot of young people were attracted to Charles because he did sponsor creativity," said Beaton Sheppard, who also worked with Mr. Cullum on projects like the Fishermen's Museum in Grand Bank, and interacted with him through professional associations: "From an architectural point of view, Charles raised the profile of architecture in Newfoundland. And as president of the RAIC – he's still the only Newfoundlander to hold that position."

His vast, impressive portfolio includes the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre ("one of my better buildings," which required a pipeline supply of salt water); the Regional Taxation Data Centre (which opened in 1980 on what used to be a landfill, and was composed with an eye towards its considerable computer-infrastructure and security concerns); and consulting on the Health Sciences Centre.

The Confederation Building West Block was another major project. "Not one of my best buildings, actually," Mr. Cullum said, "but it does work. The best memories are of the art works with which the building is enhanced." He had persuaded the provincial government to spend one per cent of the cost of the building on art, and the building featured stained glass, a silk batik mobile murals, and soapstone sculpture. "Until then, the Province's buildings had no art at all except odd pictures the bureaucrats would hang on their walls," he said.

His heritage-related work, which earned three Southcott Awards from the Newfoundland Historic Trust, included restoring the province's oldest church, Quidi Vidi Church, and what might be the oldest house in St. John's – Anderson House/Power's Court.

Among his other positions, he was president of the Newfoundland Association of Architects, a member of the St. John's City Zoning Appeal Board, and vice-chairman of both the St. John's Historical Society and the Newfoundland Heritage Foundation, as well as a board member with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra.

His interests were many, and unflagging. A recent project in his 80s was designing several articulated-hull catamaran prototypes.

Predeceased by his wife (2005), he leaves daughter Caroline and son Hugh, and grandsons Jonas and Peter.

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