When I was living and working in British Columbia, Canada, I was the only full time practicing architect in almost a 400-mile radius. To put that in context, that’s the equivalent of all of South Carolina, south to the middle of Florida, north through Virigina, and west through Georgia and into Alabama and Tennessee.

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.  He wanted to renovate a plain and utilitarian hotel built in the 1950s and include a casino. The owner had a vision.  He even showed me the picture he had drawn, with a ship’s bulwark and waves all down the side–colored in blue of course.  This casino, he said, should look like a steamship because Quesnel was developed and settled and then serviced by the steamships. It would be “historical.”

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!”

Charlotte at Quesnel 1898

Charlotte at Quesnel 1898. (courtesy Wikipedia)

However, in my research for the project I found that, yes, steamships really did play an important part in the town’s history.  Quesnel is in the far north of British Columbia and started as a lumber boom town.  The original hotel was for lumberjacks to stay in on the weekend after they’d been paid.  Maybe there was something to his idea.  The imagery is after all very powerful of 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 could do was arrange a second meeting and listen to what he wanted.

We arranged a second meeting. I would go to the remote town.   The forest industry dominated the work landscape.  Most of the people in the town were men involved in rugged work, with big machines.  Having moved from Toronto, I showed up dressed to the nine, with high-heeled designer shoes on.  I was their worst fear in terms of what they would get as an architect from the big city.

Nighttime viewNevertheless, 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. (Which became my client’s favorite place and were 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, which brought to mind the wharf front.

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

My job was and is to find out as much as possible about my client’s dreams and to help them to the best of my ability.  It is the client’s building and their money and their dream.   The truth is for most architects we really do want to make good architecture and beautiful design.  There can be a tension though in navigating the clients wants and dreams with budget and good design principles.   Gaining awareness from past projects like the Billy Barker Casino, 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.

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.  In the end, we nearly always find that perfect fit between good architecture and their needs.   Although the final result may not match the sketch the client brings to the first meeting, in the end, I hope the result will be even better than my client first hoped. It certainly was in the case of that hotel in Quinnell.