An Interview With Vancouver Architect Gair Williamson

I recently had the privilege of speaking with the principal of Gair Williamson Architects, Mr. Williamson himself, and here’s what he had to say about architecture, and why design is “more than just drawing lines”.

Gair at his project on Powell Street (Photo courtesy of  Ian Azariah)

Charmaine Cheng (CC): Hi Gair, let’s jump right into it. What’s your background, and what inspired you to get into your field?

Gair Williamson (GW): Well, I grew up in Montreal, and when I was 13, I knew I wanted to become an architect. I received a book on Frank Lloyd Wright from one of my aunts, and that sparked an interest in the industry for me.

However, my parents encouraged me to pursue a well-rounded education, so I became an underwater archeologist. In time I realized my heart was still in architecture, so in the seventies I studied at The Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. I stayed in London for 11 years, then I moved to Toronto, and then I started my own firm in Vancouver.

The Han Tower (Photo courtesy of Gair Williamson Architects)

CC: Tell me about one of the projects you’re working on right now in Canada that excites you.

GW: Right now, my firm is working on a building on Granville Street, right in the heart of Vancouver. Standing at 9 storeys high, and 25 feet wide, it’s one of the first prefabricated buildings in Vancouver. It’s called the Han Tower, and its parts were cut in Shanghai and prefabricated in Calgary.

The Paris Annex (Photo courtesy of Gair Williamson Architects)

CC: What trends or changes do you see coming in your industry, whether for better or for worse?

GW: In Vancouver, the emphasis is on micro housing, as the city is accommodating more and more people. A lot of the people that are coming into Vancouver are single, and they are making full use of the city’s amenities. This new generation of Millennials are not materialistic; they’re not driving cars. Our focus is on designing more flexible units, to fit this ultra-urban lifestyle.

The Paris Annex (Photo courtesy of Gair Williamson Architects)

GW: The industry sees a dichotomy between architecture and interior design. In my opinion, the two are intricately linked. There are very few interior designers that I’d want to work with, and I’ve worked with flaky ones in the past. Developers need to understand the value of having a project done by one design entity, to ensure a cohesive design.

626 Alexander Street (Photo courtesy of 626 Alexander)

CC: What do you do to find your creative inspiration‎?

GW: I live a very West-Coast lifestyle— I paddle board, I do hot yoga every day at lunch. I love being around creative, young visionaries  -– I draw energy from youth.

135 Keefer Street (Photo courtesy of Gair Williamson Architects)

GW: I’m a big proponent of helping young talent, having new graduates work at my firm and getting experience and training. In fact, one of my guys, Chris Woodford, went on to start his own firm, the first architecture firm to be opened in ten years in Newfoundland. I’m pretty proud of that.

Home of Canadian artist Martha Sturdy, designed by Peter Cardew (Photo courtesy of Peter Cardew Architects)

CC: What is your favourite example of Canadian houseporn?

GW: Hmm. I’d say any project by Peter Cardew. His projects are fantastic, he’s won global awards in architecture. If I were to pick one in particular, I’d say the house he designed for Martha Sturdy. She’s a great Canadian sculptor, she works with stone and salvaged cedar. I’d say that house in particular is one of the greats in Canadian residential design.

The AA School of Architecture (Photo courtesy of the Architectural Association School of Architecture)

CC: Any special/defining moments in your education/career?

GW: After I got my underwater archeology degree, I did some work in Bermuda, but I eventually came to British Columbia and applied to the school of architecture at the University of British Columbia. I was 22 at the time.

Well, I was refused… I was devastated.

I later met someone who was going to school at the Architectural Association in London, and that’s where I ended up. After my third year of school in London, we were supposed to take a year off, and go out and work, and then come back the year afterwards — I’ll never forget this moment.

Mike Davies, partner at Richard Rogers and one of my professors at the time, asked me what I was planning to do in the coming year. I told him I wanted to go back to Canada to work. There was a magazine on the table in the room in which we were talking, and I flipped it over and on it was a building in Edmonton. I said, “I’d like to work for a guy like that”. That building was designed by Barton Myers, and I ended up coming to Toronto and working for him. It was one of those moments that I’ll never forget.

Newspaper clipping from The Vancouver Sun (Photo courtesy of Gair Williamson Architects)

CC: Any last words?

GW: There’s always time. I was 22 when I became an underwater archeologist, 25 when I went to the AA School of Architecture, graduated at 35, and I became a registered architect when I was 51. Now I’m almost 65. I knew I wanted to be an architect from a very young age, in fact, I received my very first drafting table on my 13th birthday. My parents knew it too; they said, look, you’re going to be an architect. But do something else first. And here we are today.

To learn more, and to view their brilliant portfolio, visit Gair Williamson Architects.

Researched and Written by Charmaine Cheng, Architectural Technology, Centennial College

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