Interview: Allison Williams (Summer 2009)

August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Pittsburgh, PA (Competition 2003, competion 2009)
COMPETITIONS: When did you first decide you wanted to become an architect? Was it a sudden revelation?
ALLISON WILLIAMS: My undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley is in the practice of art. It would be wrong to say that I wanted to be an architect from the beginning; but frustration with the practice of art not really feeling that it was going to be a career-based thing for me. At the time, in the late 60s and early 70s, I was surrounded by some really promising artists.  For me there was also the [question] of what the art was going to be used for — how do you know exactly whether something is working or not, whether it’s interesting or not, whether it has a sort of bigger platform of use or service? I grew up in a home which was very visually based. My father was not an architect by the strict terms of the AIA; but he was an engineer-urban designer type—he built our house in Cleveland.  So architecture was part of my life from the beginning. My mother, who was a journalist, was very artistic.  So it came together, but rather as a graduate degree at Berkeley.
COMPETITIONS: I guess Yung-Ho Chang (previous Chair at MIT) wasn’t at Berkeley when you were there. But he was so good at rendering, that everyone sort of waited to see what he was doing before they got started.


AW: When I started there, I was the only one in my class of thirty who knew how to draw or knew how to express things. We had all kinds of backgrounds in the masters program at Berkeley, psychologists, structural engineers—you name it in terms of their background. They were very unfamiliar with the tools of architectural or life drawing.


COMPETITIONS: Was there a particular person or persons along the way who helped shape your ideas on architecture?


AW: Beyond my father, there were some inspirational people. People who really taught me the most are those who think of architecture as series of problems you need to solve. Gerry McCue, who later became the dean at Harvard was one. If I was going to identify the most inspirational architect, it would be Le Corbusier. I don’t know if it’s just a generational thing, or just total admiration. It probably has more to do with more time in Paris and France than any place other than places I have lived. I have probably visited almost every work by Corbusier.
During my time at Skidmore, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Marc Goldstein, who was an incredible mentor. I benefitted in my experience and success at the office because of working with him. When he became ill, he looked to me to just take it and run.


COMPETITIONS: What was the first competition you ever entered? And the most memorable?


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