Rural Chic

PROJECT Hôtel La Ferme, Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec and Grande-Pointe Station, Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, Quebec
ARCHITECTS LemayMichaud Architecture Design in Joint Venture with St-Gelais Montminy + Associés Architectes and Coarchitecture (Hôtel La Ferme); St-Gelais Montminy + Associés Architectes (Grande-Pointe Station)
TEXT Odile Hénault
PHOTOS André-Olivier Lyra unless otherwise noted

The recent completion of La Ferme, a hotel complex in rural Quebec, invites comparison with the Fogo Island Inn, currently under construction in Newfoundland. Envisioned as bold architectural statements, they are personality-driven projects, involving Daniel Gauthier in the former case and Zita Cobb in the latter. Both Gauthier and Cobb had a modest start in life, made substantial earnings in business, retired early and returned to reinvest in their adopted hometowns. For Cirque du Soleil co-founder Gauthier, home meant Baie-St-Paul, a small regional centre an hour from Quebec City, where the Cirque was born in the early 1980s.

Spectacular landscapes–rugged and isolated on the Atlantic Coast, tamer on the St. Lawrence River–are what Cobb and Gauthier banked on as they devoted time and money to their respective projects. The two widely travelled, well-informed individuals each combined contemporary architecture with traditional craftsmanship, in bids to bring new life to a relatively remote community and boost its economy.

The year after Gauthier returned to Baie-St-Paul in 2001, he acquired local ski resort Le Massif, then deep in debt and in dire need of funding. It became obvious that the resort’s survival hinged on new hospitality facilities specifically linked to outdoor recreation. The project started to take shape as Gauthier identified a property 20 kilometres away, which would lend itself to the construction of a major resort hotel. Gauthier’s vision also included re-establishing a scenic train route that formerly brought passengers from Quebec City to the Charlevoix area. In Gauthier’s scheme, the train, departing from the Quebec City area and terminating near Le Manoir Richelieu in Pointe-au-Pic, would include two new stations, one at the foot of Le Massif, and one at the new resort hotel, in Baie-St-Paul. 

From the 1850s well into the 20th century, steamships and later trains transported socialites and celebrities to the area’s pristine and dramatic landscapes. Here, architects such as Edward Maxwell, John S. Archibald, Charles McKim and Frederick Todd developed a rich built heritage of cottages, summer villas, gardens and hotels. Perhaps the best-known building from that era is Le Manoir Richelieu, now a Fairmont property. It first opened its doors in 1899, then again in 1929 after a major fire, and was long the destination of choice for the upper-class elites who chose to spend their summers in the region. 

For Gauthier’s 21st-century attempt at reigniting local tourism, a first overall concept was drafted in 2005 by Schème consultants, a group of professionals that established a solid working relationship with the Cirque du Soleil when landscaping their headquarters in Montreal. Unusual in scope for a resort facility, their idealistic concept reflected Gauthier’s regionally scaled, multifaceted dream for the 120-square-kilometre territory that included mountains, valleys, villages and a town, all bordering the St. Lawrence River. The prime Baie-St-Paul land, where the resort proper would be located, had been owned for decades by the Petites Franciscaines de Marie nuns, and featured a magnificent H-shaped wood barn from the 1940s. Purchased in 2006, the former farm–and particularly its barn–would be at the heart of the project.

A Quebec-wide search began for architects capable of transforming this barn into a major resort hotel. No clear design direction had been taken when, one night in late June 2007, the barn went up in smoke. So did part of Gauthier’s dream. Months of limbo followed while he and his partners grappled with what to do next. 

With the historical building still on everyone’s mind but its constraints removed, architects came and went. Projects were drawn and redrawn–too often oversized, over budget and oblivious to Gauthier’s original vision. Finally, project consultant François Courville, formerly of Schème, and Marie-Chantal Croft from Quebec City’s Coarchitecture, joined forces in an ultimate attempt. After an intense 15-day charrette, they came up with a scheme that rekindled everyone’s enthusiasm. 

Courville and Croft returned to the basics–the mountain setting, the proximity of the river, the area’s farming tradition, the century-old domestic architecture, and the indelible presence of a religious order that had played a major role in local history. Through careful consideration of this context, they arrived at a fundamental conclusion: the 145-room hotel could not possibly be a monolithic building, which would dwarf its surroundings and block many of the views. What they proposed instead was to build several pavilions that would respect and mimic the scale of the surroundings.

The project was dubbed La Ferme, alluding to the agricultural development of Baie-St-Paul from the beginning of the 18th century. Seen against monolithic grand hotels such as Manoir Richelieu, the thematic choice and pavilion strategy suggested a close link between the hotel and its French-Canadian rural environment. 

The resort centered on a three-storey U-shaped building that would include a small train station, public market and multipurpose hall along with the hotel reception, lobby, restaurant and 38 rooms. Each of four additional pavilions, oriented to optimize views and natural light, would offer a distinct type of accommodation. Croft and Courville set out clear guidelines in terms of narrative and materials. Wood was favoured for symbolic reasons, but also as a strategy to employ local workers and make use of Quebec wood products. The one exception was the main building, where a steel structure was specified to comply with fire regulations. 

With a new concept clearly articulated, Daniel Gauthier confirmed the involvement of two firms from Quebec City, LemayMichaud architecture design and St-Gelais Montminy + Associés Architectes (STGM). Well known for their boutique hotels, and particularly for the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations in Wendake, Quebec, the LemayMichaud team was mainly responsible for the Baie-St-Paul project’s interiors. Their design mandate included first and foremost the hotel’s rooms, but also its lobby, lounge, restaurant and spa. 

STGM, on the other hand, was commissioned to plan the multipurpose hall and market (both open to the community at large) as well as to supervise the construction of all exteriors. They built the unassuming train station attached to the main building, the second of two new stations envisaged in the overall scheme. STGM had previously designed the graceful train stop at the foot of Le Massif, completed the year before. Simple and straightforward, the small but elegant Grande-Pointe Station hugs the mountainside. Its exposed wood-slat walls provide basic shelter without hiding the striking views of the river. The vocabulary used here is different from La Ferme’s, and is more in keeping with mountain shelters typically found in Quebec’s wilderness regions.

In La Ferme, the main building faces the town of Baie-St-Paul. Through a giant porte-cochère, equipped with sliding red steel barn doors, one catches a glimpse of the surrounding mountains, creating a dramatic backdrop for the exterior court and the nearby pavilions. The station and hotel each have separate entrances under this grand portal. 

A multipurpose hall that hosts concerts and communi
ty events occupies nearly a quarter of the main building’s ground floor. Both hall and hotel share the same lobby, overlooking the exterior court and featuring numerous objects made by Quebec and Charlevoix designers. Of particular interest are the distinctive tubular light fixtures by talented Montreal-based Antoine Laverdière. Overall, there was a concerted effort to buy local, which meant commissioning quite a number of artisans to craft tables, beds, bookshelves, chairs and marvellous contemporary weavings.

The four thematic pavilions lie beyond La Ferme’s main three-storey structure, in full sight of the neighbour’s grazing cows. Varying in size and height, they bear slightly contrived names associated with farm outbuildings: 39-room Le Clos (The Farm Yard), 7-suite Le Moulin (The Mill), 49-room La Bergerie (The Sheep Pen) and 12-room La Basse-cour (The Chicken Coop). Le Spa du Verger (Orchard Spa), partially below grade, links La Bergerie and La Basse-cour. 

One of the strongest aspects of this project is this breaking down of program, which if amalgamated under a single roof would have resulted in a massive volume. This type of planning recalls traditional siting strategies based not just on fire routes and zoning regulations, but also on prioritizing views, protection from the wind, topography and natural light. 

While making agricultural allusions, the buildings here are contemporary: volumes are straightforward and avoid the nostalgic imagery that so often dominates in country resorts. In terms of colour, most of the façades are left in a natural wood shade, although each of the pavilions perhaps unnecessarily features balconies, soffits and other details in anthracite, yellow, aqua or burgundy. Vertical slate signals the presence of the train station and the multipurpose hall on the hotel’s main façade. Galvanized steel, seen mostly along the side and back of the multipurpose hall and on secondary exit staircases and on railings, completes the material palette.

Room layouts were carefully researched so that each pavilion would have its own distinctive room type–or types, as double-height rooms on upper floors were designed differently. Le Clos is perhaps the most evocative, with all interiors strongly reminiscent of barn architecture. Meticulously designed interior walls give the impression of being casual assemblages of studs and planks. This strategy in turn informed the wall motifs used throughout the complex, a constant reminder of the original farm. 

Also of particular interest are the rooms developed for La Bergerie. Here, LemayMichaud decided to distance themselves from the theme’s constraints, and converted the word Bergerie into Berge, meaning shore. This allowed them to create a totally different type of room where they quite successfully explored placing beds on raft-like structures, which fold up semi-vertically to form walls separating the sleeping areas from  the open bathrooms. Noteworthy as well are the four-bed dorms, probably the best in the country, placed above the hotel train station–a type of accommodation Gauthier had insisted on.

Overall, the parti adopted for Baie-St-Paul differs greatly from what is underway on Fogo Island–although it is still difficult, at this stage, to visualize Todd Saunders’s finished 29-room hotel in Newfoundland with its art gallery, restaurant, spa and cinema. The Fogo Island Inn will no doubt be more sculptural in form than La Ferme, where partners, context, and tighter budgets strongly impacted the project. 

In the end, both resorts, if they are successful, may demonstrate that contemporary architecture provides an often forgotten added value, appreciated not just by initiates but also by members of the public at large. One hopes that the passion and ambitious vision that drove La Ferme and the Fogo Island Inn will serve as inspirational examples for private patrons and mainstream developers alike. CA

Odile Hénault has worked as an architect, critic, editor, curator, school director, teacher and professional advisor. She presently lives on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City.

Client Groupe Le Massif/SOGEPC
Architect Team LemayMichaud–Kevin McCandless, Katrine Beaudry, Roméo Coté, Annie-Claude Gilbert, Marie-Christine Baillargeon, Cynthia Roy, Tony Demers, Philippe Gagnon, Réal Lessard, François Gaudreault, Marc Leblond, Marie-André-Morin, Audrey Chabot. STGM–Michel Gingras, Stéphan Langevin, Guylaine Lafortune, Maxime Arcand, Raymond Boucher, Cathy Gagné, Alexandre Guérin. Coarchitecture–Marie-Chantal Croft, Marie-Ève Cantin
Structural EMS Ingénierie
Mechanical/Electrical Génécor Experts-Conseils
Civil Génio Experts-Conseils
Landscape François Courville
Interiors LemayMichaud Architecture Design
Contractor L’intendant
Theatre Guy St-Amours (Productions Artefact)
Acoustics Claude Vanier (Audiofax)
Area 14,430 m2
Budget $52 M
Completion December 2012

Client Groupe Le Massif
Architect Team Michel Gingras, Stéphan Langevin, Guylaine Lafortune, Valérie Godbout, Marcel St-Louis, François Chabot, Raymond Boucher
Structural BPR Tetratech
Mechanical/Electrical SNC-Lavalin
Contractor Qualité Construction
Project Management L’intendant
Gondola Doppelmayr
Area 630 m2
Budget $1 M
Completion May 2012