Insertion Points

ARCHITECT Gair Williamson Architects
TEXT Trevor Boddy
PHOTOS Ed White, unless otherwise noted

How do you plot a career in architecture?

Asking this same question of accountants, surgeons, and even musicians nets a narrower range of answers–tighter and more closely repeating patterns that map the flows of experience and opportunity. As architects worldwide know all too well these days, charting and managing–let alone predicting–an architectural career is very challenging. If technological and stylistic change were not sufficient issues in themselves, architects are more beholden to economic cycles than any other profession. We boom louder than anyone else when things are peaking, and are the first to know the silence of down times, like these.

Vancouver architect Gair Williamson has had an unusual career trajectory and occupies a unique practice niche. A Montreal native, he received a degree in archaeology from McGill University before earning his architecture diploma from London’s Architectural Association at the age of 35. While at architecture school, he returned to Canada for short periods, working with Toronto’s Barton Myers before working with Moriyama & Teshima Architects, then Young + Wright Architects. In 1989, Williamson moved out to Vancouver, where he has been ever since, working with various firms such as VIA Architecture.

Williamson decided to first hang out his shingle at age 52, six years ago. Generational transition has been slow amongst Vancouver architectural firms, and will be even slower if more baby boomers like Williamson start out at ages when designers used to ramp down. By the same token, Vancouver provides fewer and fewer opportunities for mid-career architects wanting to get out on their own.

Indicative of the problem, when the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) recently commissioned a “renewal plan” for its underachieving Granville Island development, they selected Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden. Without a doubt, this is one of the city’s best architecture and planning firms, and one of the few to anticipate generational succession by adding Bruce Haden and Alan Boniface to the founding partnership. But it is crucial to note that in the 1970s, Norman Hotson and Joost Bakker had been given the chance–before they turned 30–to design Granville Island in the first place. Hotson and Bakker were also granted ongoing urban design consulting fees for the tourist market and arts zone for more than three decades ever since, only to be chosen over a talented list of competitors to “renew” their own ideas.

Because of chary commissioning practices like these, Vancouver architects 10, 20, even 30 years out of school must wait for their first plum commission. Even if they have talent and entrepreneurial drive equal to those of Hotson and Bakker in the 1970s, new practitioners in Vancouver are ever more forced to content themselves with the design of vacation homes, additions, boutiques and public art installations, not major transformations of the urban fabric. Bakker points out that the expansion of Vancouver’s practice scene over the past decade has been accommodated almost entirely through consolidations and the establishment of local outlets of large corporate practices (Stantec, Kasian, Cannon, HOK, Zeidler, etc.) rather than the natural evolution of local firms–he names Acton Ostry and mcfarlane | green | biggar as the welcome exceptions to this tired pattern.

Williamson’s sole proprietorship otherwise resembles many other architectural practices after only six years of stamping their own drawings. Ranging in size between three and six, his staff is almost entirely comprised of architecture school graduates under the age of 30. Williamson strongly encourages them to take out logbooks, rotates their assignments to broaden experience, urges them to initiate their exams, and otherwise prepare themselves for full professional registration. Williamson’s level of encouragement and flexibility is often missing at larger offices: “My intent is that any intern who works here for a period of time would learn enough to start their own firm.”

The path to success for young firms is often through specialization in an emerging or underserved corner of practice. This is certainly true of Williamson, who has had a string of successes designing adaptive reuse-cum-additions to heritage buildings in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods. He describes his work to date this way: “Our niche of practice could be defined as grafts and insertions into heritage buildings.” Williamson’s success in this niche is even more remarkable since–with the possible exception of Calgary–Vancouver has saved less of its stock of heritage buildings than any other Canadian city. In part, this is because British Columbia’s provincial heritage legislation is amongst the weakest on the continent. With weak laws and limited funding, creative ideas had to flow from city planners and Vancouver City Hall, but these have been sufficient to spark a mini-boom of adaptive reuse this decade. Two mechanisms powered this surge: the sale and transfer of unused development rights from heritage buildings to elsewhere on the downtown peninsula, in combination with property tax relaxations for designated properties in the key heritage zones of Gastown, Chinatown, Victory Square and the Downtown Eastside.

Clients turn architects from dreamers into schemers. Williamson has had a close and positive relationship with Salient Development, which is headed by the successful Robert Fung (son of the former Toronto Waterfront Commissioner of the same name), often sharing office space with the firm. Salient took more advantage of the transfer of development rights (TDR) policy than any other Vancouver developer, and now finds itself controlling nearly half the unplaced density benefits nearly a year into a city council embargo on their sale (the issue for City Hall is the mounting store of potential building density without sufficient sites to “land” it on specific locations in a developing-out downtown).

Williamson is responsible for one of the best applications of these Vancouver heritage mechanisms in his adaptive reuse and rooftop addition for Salient to the Bowman Block, part of a line of early 20th-century warehouses on Beatty Street south of West Georgia Street. Williamson’s design cut back the window-side floor plates of timber-beamed and wooden mill floors to open up two-storey lofts, with bedrooms set back to increase the sense of space, while revealing original elements of the 1906 structure–for example, the former beam seats are retained as a marker of the building’s past.

Similarly, designer and developer resisted invisibly bricking-over the line where the subtracted floor plate was excised, intending it to be left visible. In some of these loft condos, the location of the former floor plate is marked with a very contemporary steel I-beam, which also helps with seismic stiffening of the masonry shell building.

The most compelling instance of what Williamson calls his firm’s “hybrid mentality” is a two-storey all-new addition placed on the Bowman roof, now home to the building’s four most spectacular condos. Set back from the street and dominated by the caryatids of the Sun Tower next door, these fine additions to Vancouver’s downtown roofscape are almost invisible from surrounding streets. This is too bad, because these are unusually handsome and well-proportioned apartments, welcome amidst blocks of cookie-cutter tower-podium banalities rendered in cheap bare concrete elsewhere downtown. Williamson credits former senior downtown planner Larry Beasley for pushing to extend heritage bonusing to this Beatty Street location, and for his support of a contemporary architectural palette of zinc plate and glass over the wishes of his own junior planners, who wanted the Bowman addition clad in something “brickier” and more “contextual.”

Williamson avoids fuzzy contextualism in a secon
d Salient project, the adaptation of the Edwardian Lumberman’s Building into stylish new premises for the local outlet of the Toronto-headquartered advertising firm TAXI, where new surfaces and fittings are frankly contemporary, the spaces free-flowing. For an addition to yet another Edwardian block, the Paris Building, Williamson’s strategy is an addition oriented sideways, not up. Seismic upgrades are a key requirement and a huge cost consideration for heritage buildings this size. The shared elevator-and-fire-stair core is notched mid-site between heritage building and Williamson’s addition, providing lateral stability for both sides. With old and new portions sharing the same core, there are also substantial benefits in net-to-gross ratios on the tightly planned floors, all of them containing condos except for the shops on the main floor.

The first three floors are flush with the plane of its Hastings Street heritage neighbours, though once again imitation of historical detail is eschewed for a more generalized architectural empathy in proportion and degrees of opacity. Floors three through six step back to provide modest residential balconies. Williamson bought suite 303, and with some clever planning and built-ins, it demonstrates how liveable a small-windowed 684-square-foot loft space can be. Final word goes to Williamson himself, with a generalized estimation of the state of his own practice applying just as much to this single room: “When I started my own practice, I believed that pursuing the craft of design could result in an architecture of lasting relevance–I saw it as Modernism, inspired by the vernacular.” CA

Vancouver architecture critic Trevor Boddy is curator of the major exhibition Vancouverism: Architecture Builds the City. The exhibition opens January 7, 2010 in the atrium of the new Woodwards development, running until the end of the 2010 Winter Olympics. It will then move to the 2010 Shanghai World Expo in its “Best Urban Practices” section.

Project Bowman Lofts, 528 Beatty Street, Vancouver, BC
Architect Gair Williamson Architects in joint venture with Ankenman Marchand Architects
Architect Team Gair Williamson, Francois Marchand, Kelly Stadnyk, Pascal Mailloux, Scot MacNeill, Dimitri Harvalias, Monica Jeffers, Doug Mayr
Client The Salient Group
Structural Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers
Mechanical Sterling Cooper
Electrical Nemetz
Landscape Senga Lindsay
Interiors Alda Pereira Design Inc.
Contractor The Haebler Group
Heritage Donald Luxton and Associates
Ground Floor Area 55,000 ft2
Budget withheld
Completion December 2006

Project TAXI, 509 Richards Street, Vancouver, BC
Architect Gair Williamson Architects
Architect Team Gair Williamson, Tiphaine Maisonneuve Le Brec, Hui Tian, Shane Meehan
Client TAXI Canada
Interiors Gair Williamson Architects
Contractor PAX Construction
Ground Floor Area 6,000 ft2
Budget withheld
Completion September 2007

Project The Paris Block, 53 West Hastings Street, Vancouver, BC
Architect Gair Williamson Architects in joint venture with Ankenman Marchand Architects (except Unit 303)
Architect Team Gair Williamson, Brian Liston, Francois Marchand, Julien Leger
Client The Salient Group
Structural Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers
Mechanical Jade West Engineering Co.
Electrical SML Consultants Group
Interiors Gair Williamson Architects (Unit 303)/Evoke International Design
Contractor Heatherbrae Services Ltd.
Heritage Donald Luxton and Associates
Ground Floor Area 33,000 ft2, Annex 20,000 ft2
Budget withheld
Completion December 2008

Project The Keefer Hotel, 135 Keefer Street, Vancouver, BC
Architect Gair Williamson Architects
Architect Team Gair Williamson, Chris Woodford, Tiphaine Maisonneuve Le Brec
Client Two By Four Developments
Structural John Bryson and Partners
Mechanical Jade West Engineering Co.
Electrical SML Consultants Group
Interiors Gair Williamson Architects
Contractor Heatherbrae Services Ltd.
Heritage Donald Luxton and Associates
Ground Floor Area 19,000 ft2
Budget $7 M
Completion October 2009