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?


AW: Being in a big firm like SOM for a number of years, I participated there on a lot of competitions. There is a point at which participating and actually leading them is the point of importance for me personally as an architect. As for manipulating the process, using my instincts and making sure that what I wanted it to be, it was? I really did not have that opportunity on a winning competition at Skidmore. The August Wilson was the one where I know that it was all me. One competition at SOM where I felt like I was in the driver’s seat — we didn’t win it — was for a major competition in Hawaii for a developer for the QE2 docks. So it was an arrivals point for people getting on and off the ship. But it was also a commercial development and a tall building. Every time I look into my portfolio, I still carry that around with me, because it meant pushing beyond the normal attitude of where you put a core in an office building — how you deal with a narrow site. The winner did a more traditional building with more of a center core which, in my opinion, looked very boxy. Whereas this notion of taking a building and really amplifying its aspect ratio between it width and length made it very barge-like.
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Harbor Center Tower, Honolulu, HI, 1992 (by Allison Williams while Associate Partner, Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP)
COMPETITIONS: Because of the nature of some of the competitions for large projects you have been involved with necessitating a large number of collaborators, I wondered if you, as a principal, ended up being a sort of arbiter in the design process. Assuming there are always strong voices and egos involved, how is the decision-making process structured in such cases? Do you sometimes have a preconceived notion of how things will go?

AW: I’m a very intuitive kind of worker. It’s a combination of knowing that you have instincts pushing you to look at certain things or ask other people to take a look at something. You can’t exactly put your finger on where it’s going to end. But it’s somehow the counterpoint which feels like the logical flow. Sometimes it’s the place where you really want to focus some of your thinking, because in a competition, if you find yourself doing it in what feels like just the logical flow; it’s quite often that you are going to end up at a point which is not significant enough to make the point—to break out of the boundaries, to really explore something that is critical.
   For instance, on the Create project, it was the issue of the width of the building footprint itself. Those who might have only been designing labs in their career would say that you couldn’t do a lab in less than 90 feet width, window to window. When you bring the intelligence to bear on the subject of the ‘why not,’ and you realize that there are all sorts of advocates—maybe people who don’t do lab buildings—but a lot about those who talk about other things that influence those basic building decisions, whether it is just that your site is only this big, and the narrower you make the building, the more space you have in-between, so the more garden, daylight, or air you have. So I do find myself sometimes tiptoeing between having a gut reaction (to an idea) that I’m really interested in looking at, knowing it’s different from what other people are thinking,  and wanting to make sure that in pursuing the unusual my ego doesn’t step on others in the room who are also having good ideas and are there to collaborate. So you have to make sure that for a certain period of time in any of these competitions that you operate on a couple of different (levels). Usually it takes a little bit longer to prove that the outlying idea has merit.
CREATE (Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise), Singapore – Winning Competition Entry

COMPETITIONS: You have mentioned the problem of adequate compensation in invited competitions. Even with what laypersons would consider to be generous compensation for submitting a design, it is probably never enough. Usually you know this going into the competition; so with the financial risk involved, what may be the determining factors in deciding to enter?

AW: The package that the competition offers, separate from compensation, is whether it really presents the opportunity to explore some new things., bringing in expertise at the same time you normally might not work with to convene a new way of thinking about a building or project type. Right now one of the competitions we are doing is a hospital in Singapore. This office and my portfolio does not speak to hospital expertise. But it is a really big project, so that the notion that it’s an intervention in the urban fabric and potential for landmark importance (led us) to bring our Los Angeles office which has tremendous expertise in healthcare practice. So at the moment we are in the middle of doing the dance between expertise, innovation and image-making. A competition offers those chances to pull in expertise and really make a mark on a building type. We always seek that.
We do also have to think about financial exposure; but I don’t know that it always stops you from giving it a go. We were on the shortlist to interview for the National African-American Museum on the Mall in Washington. You kind of talk yourself into why it was okay, but you didn’t make the (final) shortlist. I’m sure that the idea of only getting paid $50,000 for that effort and knowing that you were going to expose yourself and the firm by three- or four-times that much; sometimes the gamble is worth it. I don’t know that there are any super rules. Had we been shortlisted on that one, we obviously would have gone for it.

COMPETITIONS: The August Wilson theater competition in Pittsburgh was not highly compensated in the design proposal phase. Did you have a difficult time convincing your colleagues at P & W (or yourself, for that matter) to allow the firm to participate?

AW: That was a really easy one. At the time we weren’t Perkins and Will — it was prior to the acquisition. That was during my Ai phase, about eight years between Skidmore and the time that Perkins and Will acquired my firm, which had offices in both DC and San Francisco where I was design director. The invitation to compete came to me directly, and I was surprised when I got it. It’s the sort of thing I would never imagine winning. Being the design director, I thought that this was something we just ought to go for. There were a couple of stages prior to the actual competition — screening phases with interviews. None of the marking materials were off the shelf: it was a very different building type for me. It was a culturally specific project and needed to be crafted in such a way that it would address the real requirements of the invitation. We obviously spent more than we were paid, and there was concern that had we not won, how we were actually going to make up for that. To my shock, we actually won.

COMPETITIONS: How big is the project?

AW: 65,000 square feet. The budget was about $40 million, which seems like not enough money for the project. Originally, in the competition, it was a 90,000 SF project. The construction budget had been set long before the project actually went out to the competition. It was clear that there was some question as to whether the dollars were right. So they couldn’t build 90,000 SF; it became 65,000. It was definitely streamlined from what it was originally. But the critical components are still there.


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August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Pittsburgh, PA (Competition 2003, competion 2009)

COMPETITIONS: Whether a building is a theater, courthouse, church or school, many assume that there is something about that structure that should announce what is going on inside. In some cases, I have seen a juries eliminate a design from consideration because there wasn’t what we might call an arrival feature. How much is that part of a discussion in your design approach?

AW: The majority of my portfolio is buildings in the public realm, buildings that have the need to belong in the place where they are, to deal with the moment that they occupy in the city, whether it’s the street or the park or their frontage. It’s the thing that makes them memorable. Whether that’s an entry feature or not, or whether it’s really the building’s sense of belonging there, using the things around it responsibly, environmentally not creating shadow where it shouldn’t be, bringing in daylight where it should. It should feel like its really grounded, rather than sitting up on some denied podium playing somewhere up in the air. Buildings should take ownership of their site and also have a civic responsibility to speak to a broad sort of base of people. Our society is so diverse that buildings need to be an abstraction that doesn’t turn certain people off. So in working on the August Wilson building, it certain is a building about the history of African-American culture and contributions, but it definitely wanted to be a building that opened itself up for anyone to come and be part of it. Even if you didn’t know much about the culture or if you, as a person of color, didn’t know much about your culture, so each building needs to decide what it needs  to do to grab its site and its population.

COMPETITIONS: That brings up the question, what is the arrival feature for a hospital—the emergency room?

AW: The work that we’ve done in Singapore has now become written into the zoning requirements: that buildings will have green features, not just environmentally sustainable systems and be sustainable themselves. They are actually legislating that buildings will have green walls, vertical gardens, etc. It not about something that is just applied, but something that has a three-dimensional quality about it.


Calexico US Port of Entry, Calexico, CA (GSA Design Excellence Commission)

COMPETITIONS: Perkins and Will has been acquiring smaller firms lately. If we take Busby as an example, why acquire a firm when you could just as easily collaborate with them? Or is it about expanding your market in someplace like Canada? Do you think you may have lost a commission because you were missing an important component?

AW: I’ll give you my answer. I’m a product of an acquisition. That acquisition falls into the category of gaining market sector and regional presence. I was the outlier here in San Francisco; my partners were all in DC. But Perkins and Will didn’t have a DC office; so being able to tap into that location, which a very strong interiors practice there at the time and had a connection to the government, is what made our firm attractive. Then lo and behold, in the bottom of the bag, they found me out here on the west coast. That also turned out to be strategic, because there was no San Francisco office. So we were able to bridge the gap between Los Angeles and Seattle. Getting regional presence, in the case of Busby and having a Canadian office (in Vancouver), but more importantly with Peter, he formalized the firm’s commitment to sustainability—his practice was so grounded in that. Even though he came on board before I did, my understanding is that he lit on fire the firm’s commitment and strategic initiatives to make sure that all of us at the firm got ourselves well educated, established goals and pushed beyond LEED accreditation to become leaders in a sustainable practice for a large firm. It’s usually about regional presence and expertise, and sometimes it’s about individuals.

COMPETITIONS: Perkins and Will was originally known for school design. Has any of that spilled over into this branch of the firm?

AW: I have great respect for the intelligence within this firm; and each of the market sectors from K through 12 would be one that would be a legacy market sector within this practice. I think we have maintained an extraordinary level of research. This is another thing about Perkins and Will that is very special: it’s not just about doing the work, it’s about researching and keeping on top of — not just trends — but pushing to know more, to look at the ideas of synthesis across the market sectors and across intelligences — not just building a school, but looking to the issue of what education is like today. Our K-12 arena is  not as deeply planted here as it is in Los Angeles and Chicago. You met Karen Alschuler, who was a partner in SMWM whom we just acquired nine months ago. That practice has a very deep portfolio in K-12 in private schools here in the city.

COMPETITIONS: These are exceptionally difficult times for many architects at the moment, and a lot of firms have been faced with some serious personnel decisions. When we were in that last big recession in the early nineties, in order to retain important personnel, some firms like Kevin Roche went to four-day work weeks. I was wondering if personnel issues and workloads were handled at the local level in a large firm with multiple locations like Perkins and Will?

AW: We are not an individual profit center at Perkins and Will. We don’t let our sisters drown. When there is a good year for most of the offices in the firm, an office that has done really well certainly gets recognition; but we also peel off a little bit to make sure that the office (survives) that might not have had such a great year, possibly only because it’s a regional sort of slow period for part of the country, and not because of a lack of leadership. So we take care of each other.
Things have been very busy here. We benefitted here in San Francisco being the only large firm in the last nine months who was really busy. We’ve benefitted from taking people from other large firms in on loan — when those firms felt they couldn’t support someone, but didn’t want to let them go — and we’ve taken some really good people who got laid off. Recently, because we want to make sure we want to take care of our own, we’ve stopped bringing in people from the outside. Right now we have ten people from other Perkins and Will offices. It’s better for us to bring them in for 2-3 months and put them up: they just walk in the door, know all the protocols, and they can just sit down and engage in the collaborative dialogue.

COMPETITIONS: In retrospect how do you feel about the profession of architecture?

AW: It’s good to have found a profession that is who you are. So far it has never failed to keep me interested and satisfied my creative juices. A lot of people may feel that when you are a design partner in a large firm like Perkins and Will, that you don’t actually initiate very much, that you are not using your own individual creative drive. Somehow you’re floating above everything and actually engaged in it. Often I’ve almost met with a voice of condolence when someone says, “Perkins and Will is so big. It’s not that at all. Here we’ve got a culture that depends on me being  totally involved, getting to work with the younger people in the office, as well as a healthy collaboration with my peers. Most importantly, I’m completely embedded in the work. I just wouldn’t have it any other way.


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Tower City, Cleveland, Ohio – Design Competition Winner (1991) unbuilt (by Allison Williams while Associate Partner, Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP)