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Big City Architect in a Little Lumber Town: A Lesson in Listening

Charlotte at Quesnel 1898. (courtesy Wikipedia)

When I was living and working in British Columbia, Canada, I was the only full time practicing architect in almost a 400-mile radius. Our office had a broad range of projects – for a broad range of people. One of them was a guy who owned a hotel in a small town called Quesnel. This hotel was as plain and utilitarian as a hotel built in the 1950s could be. Quesnel, in the far north of British Columbia, started as a lumber boom town; this hotel was originally for lumberjacks to stay in on the weekend after they got paid. My new client – for “client and architect” we would be, with no other choices available – brought me his vision to transform this building into a casino. This project became a lesson in listening.

This casino, he said, should look like a steamship because the Quesnel was developed and settled and then serviced by the steamships. It would be “historical.” He even showed me the picture he had drawn, with a bulwark and waves all down the side, colored in blue.

I thought, “What am I doing here? I’m a ‘Capital-A Architect’ and Capital-A Architects do not paint waves down the sides of buildings!”

However, in my research for the project I found that, yes, steamships really did play an important part in his town’s history. That image is powerful – the paddle wheel, the funnel on top with the smoke, walkways along the side so passengers can promenade as they go upriver.

“The least I can do,” I thought, “is listen to what he wants.”

We arranged a second meeting. I was coming to his remote town, having moved from Toronto, dressed to the nines, with high-heeled designer shoes. Meanwhile, most of the people around us were men involved in rugged work, with big machines. The forest industry dominated the work landscape. I was their worst fear in terms of what they would get as an architect from the big city.

Nevertheless, here we were. This time, though, I listened deeply to what my client described. His dream began to take root in my mind, too – yet without the painted on waves.

The hotel really could have the character of a steamship, I realized. A curved front balcony, promenades along the sides, a little building on the top that would evoke the wheelhouse. (That became my client’s favorite place; he would take his best customers up on the “deck.”)

Because the entire building was a cube rather than long and skinny, I made the side part into what looked like a series of buildings. This brought to mind the wharf front.

The Billy Barker, complete with railings along the decks, a wheel house and paddle wheel.

My client, who at first thought I was a prima donna, was totally and completely ecstatic with what he got. The steamship casino and hotel is now a landmark in the town.

The project came as close to what he wanted as I could make it … and still have architectural integrity. I was no longer a “Capital-A Architect” who always knows the best and most tasteful way to solve a problem. But not because I had abandoned my principles. On the contrary, I had learned to listen and make the needs and wishes of the client at least as important as those other factors.

It would be my client’s building and his money. He shared his dreams with me. My job was and is to find out as much as possible about that dream and help my client to the best of my ability. Because that will involve integrity, health and safety, and good design, the final result may not match the sketch the client brings to the first meeting. But, in the end, I hope the result will be even better than my client at first hopes. It certainly was in the case of that hotel in Quinnell.

The community, too, embraced what the hotel became. People take pride in it and it’s now an important building in the town.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when the client’s vision is not what I recommend as the best solution. But today when that happens, we talk about it. I might say, “As your architect, I see why you want to do this and am advising you it is not the best architectural solution and here’s why.” Then I leave it to them to decide.

The truth is for most architects, we really do want to make good architecture and beautiful design. So, for me, this is an ongoing tension, but I’m always open to another lesson in listening. Gaining awareness from past projects, I know the end result may be something I never would have thought of my own – and that’s good. It opens up possibilities. Sometimes, what my client requests is due to having seen only limited options; then they may be quite interested in the alternatives. In the end, we nearly always find that perfect fit between good architecture and their needs.