Smoke and Mirrors



Over the past few years, advancements in digital fabrication have given many emerging architecture firms an opportunity to gain traction in a competitive industry. The firm of WILLIAMSONWILLIAMSON Inc. is a Toronto-based architecture and design studio founded in 2002 by Betsy and Shane Williamson and represents one example of a burgeoning practice shaping its future directions through the various methods associated with digital fabrication. The firm was recognized with the Young Architects Award from the Architectural League of New York in 2006.

As they forge the success of their practice, Betsy and Shane have learned to experiment with a range of scales that a small office must typically undertake–from designing furniture to engaging in larger-scale urban design proposals–both speculative and built. An assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, Shane espouses the convergence of digitally based exploration afforded through parametric software and digital fabrication. A founding member of the Canadian Design Research Network, he was instrumental in bringing the University of Toronto up to date with respect to parametric modelling, milling and manufacturing. Meanwhile, Betsy is increasingly devoting herself to WILLIAMSONWILLIAMSON while working at Shim-Sutcliffe Architects in Toronto, where she continues to be immersed in the design and realization of the expansive and intricate Integral House, an urban villa sited in the ravine landscape of Toronto. The Williamsons’ experience in rapid-prototyping architectural elements has also enabled them to engage with architects like Brigitte Shim, Howard Sutcliffe and Ian MacDonald, thus bridging the gap between two generations of practitioners.

An example of one of their recent smaller designs is Smoke Tray. Commissioned in 2006, Smoke Tray is a CNC-milled tray of custom-laminated airplane plywood designed and manufactured for the 2006 Stellar Living Exhibition at the Mercer Union in Toronto–an event that included 50 international artists, architects and designers and their visions of contemporary urban life. In addition to Betsy and Shane, Tomek Bartczak and Evin Power lent their efforts to the Smoke Tray project.

Using subtractive digital fabrication techniques, Smoke Tray’s underlying surface was derived from a study of an animated particle-based system that resulted in an appealingly deformed aesthetic. When viewed from above, the tray reads as a simple rectangular field of dense, transverse striations. When seen from below, the parallel striations are less visible, as the deformed surface dominates with a sensuous and highly tactile topography.

Such explorations can be very informative for a practice that pursues new methods of conceptualizing and building designs. Based on pushing the physical limits of materiality, the Williamsons have managed to evolve a richness in aesthetic character.