Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

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Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | 2013 AIA Architecture Firm Award Recipient

By Zach Mortice, Managing Editor, AIArchitect

The American Institute of Architects Board of Directors awarded the 2013 AIA Architecture Firm Award to Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, who blend exquisite care for detail with subtle, reverent architecture that’s both timeless in its abstracted, meditative forms and materially specific to context and place. The AIA Architecture Firm Award, given annually, is the highest honor the AIA bestows on an architecture firm, and recognizes a practice that has consistently produced distinguished architecture for at least 10 years.

AIA President Jeff Potter, FAIA, notified firm founder Billie Tsien, AIA, by telephone immediately after the Board made its decision. “We’re so thrilled and happy and grateful to the AIA,” she said. Tsien received the call while attending to her husband, Tod Williams, FAIA, in a hospital waiting room, as he was being treated after a bicycle accident. “So [the award] is good news. . . “ she said. “[Tod’s] going to get out of the hospital, we’re going to keep him off the bicycle, and we’re going to have a great time.”

Architecture for an idealized public

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects respect the Modernist legacy of orthogonal, functional minimalism, but place it in a wider context of earthen, material richness. A married team of architects that have been working together since 1977 and formed their New York City–based practice in 1986, Tod Williams, and Billie Tsien have used the intervening decades to design a celebrated portfolio of overwhelmingly public cultural and institutional buildings: university facilities, libraries, museums, etc. As such, their design language embodies the idealized traits of the body politic: contemplative, enlightened, humble, eloquent, granular, and diverse in its individual details, but unified in purpose and intent. It’s a tactile Modernism where the form persists, but the experiential palette of sight and touch deliver the subtlest murmurs of geographic and cultural specificity. “Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien practice a kinder, gentler Modernism with an enormous sensitivity to materials and textures, and a particular affinity for crafts,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Ada Louise Huxtable, Hon. AIA.

“Their work carries with it a spiritual value which transcends pragmatic solutions,” wrote Toshiko Mori, FAIA, in a recommendation letter. “Their projects respond to multiple and complex needs of clients, yet their solutions are simple and elegant. Their firm’s work brings forth the ideals of Modernism, yet is moderated with a contemporary sensibility and intelligence which makes their work rich, tactile, and useful.”

In much of their work, Williams and Tsien’s firm distills their buildings’ vital demographics down to the gentlest whisper—understated but universally understood. In their Phoenix Art Museum, a desert oasis fountain and sand-blasted, rough-hewn concrete convey the arid Southwestern climate and geography without hoary, broad formal illusions to, say, cactus, or awkward approximations of adobe. The C.V. Starr East Asian Library in Berkeley, Calif., communicates its identity and arena of study not with pagoda-roofed shtick, but with a massive sandcast bronze screen which dissolves its rectilinearity from top to bottom, ending in a jagged sculptural war of angles, the subtlest hint at the tradition of permeable screens in Asian architecture.

Experience, not intellect

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects are renowned for their material integrity and sense of innovation. They treat materials honestly; concrete forms sculptural free-standing stairs, and wood frames unpretentiously warm floor-to-ceiling glass walls. When they can’t find the proper material for a specific use, they invent their own. For example, the University of Pennsylvania’s bioengineering building, Skirkanich Hall, uses a hand-glazed ceramic brick on its front façade that creates an iridescent greenish sheen specially developed for the project, a reference to the ivy-covered brick seen across the 18th-century campus.

“For me,” wrote Pei Cobb Freed founder Henry Cobb, FAIA, in a recommendation letter, “what is particularly striking in the work of Williams and Tsien—and most vividly exemplifies the quality of their practice—is the astonishingly creative intelligence evidenced by their handling of material and detail wherein they have so often explored with marvelous subtlety the poetic dimensions of our art.”

KieranTimerblake’s James Timberlake, FAIA, met Williams and Tsien 30 years ago while he and Williams were both fellows of the American Academy in Rome. “It was there that I witnessed their interest in and observation of detail and craft,” wrote Timberlake in a letter of recommendation. “How materials went together was as important to selection and craft as it was to the formal arrangement of space.”

AIA Gold Medalist Louis Kahn is the architect to whom Williams and Tsien are most often compared, and compare themselves to. Both consider natural light their most prized building material, and invite it in through atriums, skylights, and cleverly placed daylighting portals. Both also share a sense of permanence and timelessness that comes with density and weight. Kahn gets there through the repetition of elemental geometric forms. Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects get there through the use of unconventional textured materials that remind visitors of the natural world, but elevate the mundane through exacting presentation and detailing. Like Kahn before them, for Williams and Tsien, architecture is an experiential exercise, not an intellectual one.

Despite the growing prestige of their commissions and their recent expansion into international projects, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects keep their studio relatively small and nimble, with fewer than 30 people on staff. Some of their most notable projects are:

The Rifkind House in Wainscott, N.Y., a Long Island Modernist triptych pavilion clad in warm cedar siding, balanced with cool New York bluestone. Mahogany floor-to-ceiling window frames and custom-designed cherrywood furniture make the house an inviting and convivial entry into the pantheon of Modernist glass-walled houses.

The C.V. Starr East Asian Library at the University of California-Berkeley, a rare books repository that signals its cultural affiliation with carefully crafted abstract screen systems.

The David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center in New York City, which cobbles together 7,000 square feet of new public space for performances and Lincoln Center visitors out of the interstitial spaces between buildings. Newcomers and Lincoln Center regulars are treated to a 20-foot-tall green wall and 16 skylight oculi playfully scattered across the ceiling.

The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the museum that controversially transplanted Albert Barnes’ singular collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art from his suburban quasi-private exhibition space to Center City Philadelphia. Williams and Tsien’s new museum replicates the scale, proportion, and configuration of the original Paul Cret–designed museum, while adding new spaces for education, painting conservation, and research.

Folk life architecture

Perhaps the work that best exemplifies Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ approach to design is the former site (now, sadly, shuttered) of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Sited on a narrow 40 by 100-foot plot, this museum focuses on works created by craftspeople not formally schooled in the fine arts: afro-centric quilts, 19th-century tinsel painting, pinup photos, and (in an exhibition Williams and Tsien would probably appreciate very much) whimsical concrete sculptures by an untrained Indian artist inspired by Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh mega structures. In short, it’s outsider art that explodes perceived notions of high and low culture, and exists on the border of craft and art—which is exactly where Williams and Tsien live. They approached the commission with the understanding that this museum should be an imperfect, rough-grained place; idiosyncratic but rich in detail and meaning, with its own internal logic—just like the art it houses. “In a way, there’s a very direct connection between [the folk artists’] technique and their hand and their heart,” Tsien said in an interview with Drexel University. “It doesn’t go through a sense of theory. We wanted to allow that same sense of personal experience.”

Writing for Metropolis, Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, called the results of this inquiry nearly the best new building in New York since Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.

This expectation of personal experience begins before visitors enter the building, with a faceted, metal-paneled, front facade broken into three planes that form an abstracted open hand, separated by narrow vertical window strips. These panels seem to be both the results of alchemy and archaeology. Actually, they’re white bronze, made greenish gray and mottled by being cast from sand molds drawn from the texture of concrete. Each panel is unique in texture and hue: greens, grays, silvers, and blacks, mutable in the changing daylight. Indentations and whorls give each component a singular fingerprint. Despite the townhouse-sized scale of the museum, the panels look and feel handmade. So what kind of massive folk art colossus used their crude tools and pure heart to sculpt and sand these jewels into shape and hang them on West 53rd Street? No behemoth at all, but a humble group of architects intent on cataloging memories of when art, craft, and function were a close-knit family, not yet divorced by contemporary notions of theory and intent.

From Herbert Muschamp’s original New York Times review of the museum: “Materiality always pulls Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien back from the brink of pure abstraction. They treat pieces of translucent corrugated plastic, steel supports on a stair, and panels of polyurethane foam like artifacts of incalculable value, as if the building were the private scrapbook of industrial culture.”

And this is the root of the pervading sense of timelessness that fills the work of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. They join contemporary forms and functions with affirmations that there is still a place for messy ancestral cultures of making in today’s world.

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Photo Credit

  • Skirkanich Hall in University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania image courtesy of Michael Moran
  • CV Starr East Asian Library in Berkely, California image courtesy of Nic Lehoux
  • David Rubsenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center in New York, New York image courtesy of Nic Lehoux
  • The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania image courtesy of Michael Moran
  • The American Folk Art Museum in New York, New York image courtesy of Michael Moran

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects


(Photo credits at bottom of page)

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects are the 50th AIA Architecture Firm Award recipient. Previous recipients of the AIA Firm Award include BNIM (2011), Pugh + Scarpa (2010), Kieran Timberlake (2008), Murphy/Jahn (2005), James Stewart Polshek and Partners (1992), Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown (1985), I.M. Pei & Partners (1968), and SOM (1962). In recognition of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ legacy to architecture, its name will be chiseled into the granite Wall of Honor in the lobby of the AIA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects have previously received:

  • 21 state and local AIA Awards
  • 8 AIA National Awards

More about Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

2013 Gold Medal and Architecture Firm Award Advisory Jury

  • Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, Chair
  • Richter Architects
  • Corpus Christi, Texas
  • Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA
  • Foster + Partners
  • London, England
  • Marlene S. Imirzian, AIA
  • Marlene Imirzian & Associates, LLC
  • Phoenix
  • Beverly J. Prior, FAIA
  • HMC + Beverly Prior Architects
  • San Francisco
  • William D. Sturm, AIA
  • Serena Sturm Architects
  • Chicago
  • Carole C. Wedge, FAIA
  • Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott
  • Boston
  • David G. Woodcock, FAIA
  • College Station, Texas
  • David Zach
  • David Zach, Futurist
  • Milwaukee

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