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A former 1970s hotel suite in downtown Victoria is redesigned to fade into the scenery.
Over his long career designing houses and condos in Victoria, Bruce Wilkin has embraced architectural periods ranging from Arts and Crafts to Classical Revival to Brutalism. His philosophy? Why limit yourself to just one? Every home has its own history and particularities, and there’s a rich, vast world of references from which to draw. And yet, for some projects the answer isn’t to reference but to simply carve away. Sometimes, paraphrasing Dieter Rams, the best design is as little design as possible.
When Wilkin accompanied long-time clients Sylvie Rochette and Bernard Delecroix to a showing of a two-storey condo in downtown Victoria, his immediate advice was to take everything out and start anew. What did it look like? Brief pause. “The opposite of this,” he says. There were wrinkled gold carpets, heavy valances, popcorn ceilings, awkwardly placed fireplaces and, visible from nearly every angle, a bulky staircase with dark-stained oak spindles and a chunky newel post. “It was that late- ’80s look that had carried over into the ’90s,” says Wilkin. “All of it needed to go.”
The building has its own particularities indeed. Built in 1981 both as a hotel and for residential use, it met with some controversy at the time for its modern look (a departure from the neighbouring century-old brick buildings) and its bold siting (it juts out into the city’s Inner Harbour like a blunted cruise ship, dark water lapping at its foundation). The unit was often used as a grand hospitality suite; sometime later, it was connected to the unit below and redeveloped as a condo. It had also been damaged by a fire, which had prompted the extensive 1980s remodel. Rochette and Delecroix could see past all of it, zeroing in on the nearly 270-degree views created from its pinwheel floor plan, the large rooftop terrace accessible from multiple rooms and over 2,300 square feet of living space, gold carpeting and all.
“We did not keep one screw,” says Rochette, laughing. “And we didn’t add very much back in. I like monochromatic, restful, minimalist homes.”
Wilkin envisioned a highly polished pied-à-terre reminiscent of the glamorous high-rises that line the shores of Miami Beach; an unencumbered vacation home in the heart of a government town. To pull it off, he embarked on a “theme of concealment,” giving as much consideration to the invisible as to the visible. The heating and cooling systems and custom motorized blinds were tucked away in a complex network of plywood troughs installed in the ceiling before drywalling to prevent awkward bulkheads and drops from cluttering up sightlines. Televisions were similarly recessed to minimize bulk, as were lights in the bathroom ceilings and mirrors. Virtually every element subsequently layered overtop—from the transparent Flos pendant lights used in the kitchen and dining room to the glass-panelled staircase to the integrated Miele and Wolf appliances—vanishes into the all-white canvas, or else makes a point of reflecting the endless views outside. The kitchen cabinetry, for example, was finished in an ultra-high-gloss product sourced from Carrier Finishing in Quebec, a detail Rochette requested so she could see the surrounding buildings outlined on the door fronts. Even the boldest statement of all, the large-scale painting by local artist Rande Cook, was chosen for its broader connections. It references the unceded territory on which the building resides and was installed in the dining room to face the B.C. Legislature across the harbour. “It’s a little wink back,” says Rochette, “and a great conversation piece.”
In the evening, as the city lights play on the surface of the water and iconic buildings with their own colourful histories loom in the distance, the interior is practically enveloped by its surroundings—a disappearing act decades in the making.
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