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Faces of Design – Williamson Williamson

Last year during our off-season, we decided to mix things up a little bit and pursue a personal project that is of a decidedly different nature than the work we usually do. We set out to meet some of the designers in town whose work we admire, have a chat about their practice and, to round it up, make some cool, unusual portraits along the way. As luck would have it our first few participants all happen to be partners both in life and business. So, without further ado, let’s introduce the dynamic duo of Betsy and Shane Williamson of Williamson Williamson.

Doublespace (DS): Tell us a bit about yourself, what is your origin story?

Betsy (BW) – I am from the Chicago area and moved here almost 20 years ago with my partner Shane. We’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best architects in Canada and start our practice where we are aspiring to do beautiful, long lasting projects.

Shane (SW)- I am originally from Savannah, Georgia. We moved to Toronto in 1999. It was a fantastic opportunity for us as I started teaching at U of T and Betsy was working with Shim-Sutcliffe Architects at the time. It was in 2007, that after years of working on competitions and having received a few notable awards, that we formally started our practice that is now known as Williamson Williamson. 

BW- We tried so many names and finally just gave up and used our own. LOL

SW- We actually prefer the eponymous name to the more mysterious, single word.

DS- It’s always hard to decide that one. We wondered for a while whether to go the eponymous route or a more “anonymous” approach, always with the idea that if wanted to expand the firm or the mission statement we’d have more options with “doublespace”

DS– What drives you? What did you want to be when you grew up?

BW- I’ve always wanted to be an architect, ever since I was in high school. Maybe this is a roundabout way of answering the question: Working for Shim-Sutcliffe you got to work on the best projects ever, and the first thing we did once I left was a little renovation for a friend – just to get the office going. I was happier owning all the mistakes and successes on my own as opposed to through somebody else. Having the opportunity to have a thriving office has really been a dream. It almost doesn’t matter which projects come in the door or which ones we are able to track down, because they are all in our world, they all become great to us.

SW- My mother would say she always knew I would be an architect, but I think it’s a very convenient story for a mother to tell, because I certainly didn’t know or had any aspirations to be an architect as Betsy did when she was in high school. I initially went to school studying business and economics. It was my first class in accounting that convinced me that it wasn’t a path that would be very fulfilling for me. I wasn’t brought up thinking about things creatively. I didn’t so much draw or make things, but once I made the transition to architecture school I realized I LOVED designing and drawing things. It was much more of a self-discovery than something I had known up to that point. I had also no intention to teach and never imagined myself being in academia, but what brought me there was some research work I had done in grad school. These things were opportunities that afforded themselves to us at the time. What I have really appreciated about having both the practice and academia is being able to craft our own engagements, be they professional or academic, and maintaining a critical practice via the lens academia provides as well. Betsy talked about ownership earlier, we do privilege that now. We’ve worked very hard to build our practice. It’s a small but thriving practice that we take great pride in having crafted the personal aspect of it. Frankly there is a part of architecture that can be truly mundane and there is an aspect of practice that is to the detriment of the discourse of architecture and our built environment, and it’s certainly something we strive to work against. I do think there is an elevated discourse and we’d like to be a part of it. That is our aspiration.

DS – Do you have a favourite project(s)? How do they embody your design philosophy?

BW- It’s a bit of a double-sided answer. Currently, the most engaging projects are the ones that are still a jumble of ideas that aren’t sorted yet and kind of go in different directions. They really grab your attention in the moment. But in the recently completed projects, the house at Ancaster Creek is a favourite. I have re-found my fondness for it, because when you immediately finish a project your head is just filled with all the work of having built it which takes up a lot of energy and mental space. And now, just enough time (has passed) where all the small things have faded away, all the deficiencies are done, it’s been photographed…I have re-found the pleasure of the project through the eye of the clients, with how it’s working, how it’s performing for them and they’re incredibly happy, which is great. I re-discovered it as a finished piece.

SW- The correct answer is that all our projects are our favourites! For me it’s a bit of an easier answer. Our first project, the House in Frogs Hollow, is a favourite because it was such a fundamental change for us to move from much of our earlier work to a freestanding building. It was the project that marked our first significant commission where someone wanted to pay us for a service. We put a lot of sweat equity in that project and it’s easy to reflect back on the house and see that it was so fundamental to even having this conversation today. It was the One. It still registers well within our practice and doesn’t at all diminish even now when we have many other entirely different trajectories in the office.

This is it for our first instalment of Faces of Design. We’d love to hear your thoughts about it. If you would like to participate or let us know who you would want to see featured on this page, please drop us a line. In the meantime, click on the photo below to check out more of Betsy and Shane’s fantastic work.

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