Practice Profile: Weston Williamson + Partners

Now big players in the transport and master planning sectors, Weston Williamson + Partners have helped shape infrastructure across London and the wider UK, with major clients including Crossrail and HS2. Sébastien Reed speaks to partners Chris Williamson and Philip Breese to hear how the firm is broadening its horizons

Despite parting ways to work for different firms upon graduating from Leicester School of Architecture in the late ‘70s, an early collaboration forged between Chris Williamson, Andrew Weston and Steve Humphreys continued, and efforts were transposed from coursework into competitions. The three lived and breathed architecture, working evenings and weekends alongside their day jobs to develop their ideas for competitions. As Williamson simply explains, “We worked well together”. During a roughly five year period, the architects accumulated a strong portfolio of designs – some realised, most not – which they entered into the RIBA ‘40 under 40’ exhibition which sought to identify budding architects showing promise. An enthusiastic response from visitors led to a leap of faith by the trio, and in 1985 WW+P was born. Initial projects came in the main from small developers buying modest industrial plots in and around London, which WW+P would take to the planning approval stage, often to be sold on to the subsequent developer. Williamson comments: “Unless you’ve got a lot of money or contacts, that’s the only way to start.” Over time, the prestige of projects undertaken gradually increased, and in 1991 WW+P were selected by architect Roland Paoletti and London Underground chairman Sir Wilfrid Newton to join the design team for the Jubilee Line extension, where they designed the London Bridge stop on the line. This was the ‘big break’ that would power the practice’s future trajectory.

Approach & remit

“Some architects only want to do architecture the way they want to do it,” says Williamson, “others who will do exactly what the client asks for and nothing else.” The founding partner endorses a position “somewhere in the middle” where client’s decisions are appropriately questioned, but not so much that the client’s overarching vision is compromised – “Architecture is a cyclical process, you have to be able to adapt in collaboration with the client.” The architects cite a “rational clarity” that characterises their approach, which Chris elaborates as taking account of context – the site, the way the sun moves over it, its immediate surroundings, and more – and “working with the brief, rather than trying to impose something as a style.” The clarity aspect is, for WW+P, about how they design, rather than a particular style. The practice has deployed this effectively across their comprehensive project portfolio, which consists primarily of transport and infrastructure, master planning, and mixed-use residential schemes in the UK, India, China, and Australia.

Growth model

Senior partner Philip Breese’s appointment came later in 2005, heading up a diversifying team working on mixed-use and housing projects as part of the founders’ aim of future-proofing the practice. Introducing more strata of partners, particularly earlier on, and becoming a limited liability partnership in 2013, has produced highly beneficial overlapping layers of experience between partners which is a further safeguard for the firm going forward. WW+P now numbers over 100 architects, designers, visualisers and support staff in the London office, and 30 more championing the brand’s approach from two more offices located in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. On the basis of their hard-earned expertise in the transport sector, two years ago WW+P were selected by Metro Melbourne to work on improving the city’s underground rail network. It was this project that spurred the opening of the firm’s first Australia office. Breese explains to ADF how work in new sectors has helped further develop the practice: “We’ve used transport and infrastructure as a lever to help us in those new markets, as well as our thoughts around transport-oriented development and how other elements of the city plug in – residential and masterplanning – to push things elsewhere.” The architects have an opportunistic and altruistic attitude towards tackling the challenges of a growing and more dispersed workforce. “It gives you that opportunity to upscale in all areas of work, and allows people in the practice to grow into new roles because of that advancement at the higher end,” explains Philip. With this in mind, WW+P are calmly intent on maintaining their trend of slow and sensible growth. It is also an “inclusive” practice – and one which believes in using their power of recruitment to encourage social mobility, not least to bring a rich spread of different perspectives. Events, exhibitions, and competitions continue to prove their utility as a way of finding the next talented architect to join the team.

Embracing past & future

The practice prides itself on active engagement with fusing more traditional elements with progressive technologies. When quizzed as to schemes that illustrate this drive, both Chris and Philip cite their work on Paddington’s new Crossrail station as an exemplar, located adjacent to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s original listed building (this project is to be presented in the October 2018 issue of ADF). “We tried to imagine; if he were alive today, with all the modern materials and modern construction techniques, what would he do? We didn’t want to do a pastiche of the original building,” Chris explains. With Brunel’s epoch of plentiful cheap labour long passed, Paddington Crossrail station made extensive use of offsite and modern methods of construction to accelerate construction processes and allow for quality to be better assessed. Phil explains further: “In the past couple of years we’ve done quite a lot of work in volumetric and offsite design. It’s high-tech in the way it’s manufactured but, equally, low-tech in how it’s put together.” When asked for exemplars from other, possibly competing firms which have provided inspiration, Philip mentions the “well-crafted” R7 by Duggan Morris, part of the Kings Cross masterplan. For Philip, this scheme with its eye-catching pink exterior “does something different” within the context of the broader locale. Chris notes there is a danger of being ‘typecast’ in the UK: “Part of the problem with being an architect here is that you tend to be recognised for one particular skill or one particular sector of design”. He continues: “I admire practices with a wide variety of different kinds of work, as well as a specialism.” His closing words tie in with WW+P’s aspirations to continue bolstering and broadening their repertoire. Recent appointments, including work on Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, oversight on the developments surrounding East Croydon Station, not to mention a new school in Cambodia, show their commitment to not only consolidate their position in more familiar sectors, but branch out into fruitful new pastures.