Tod Williams and Billie Tsien: Design Process and Practice

Categories: Articles

By Martin Moeller, Senior Curator

Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, FAIA, are the founders of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, which received the AIA Architecture Firm Award in 2013. Williams and Tsien spoke at the National Building Museum as part of the Spotlight on Design lecture series. In anticipation of that event, senior curator Martin Moeller interviewed the pair.

Martin Moeller (MM): Your buildings typically eschew the audacious formal gestures that so often capture disproportionate attention from architecture critics and the general press these days. Do you ever find yourselves tempted by the prospect of creating a deliberately iconic form, or is the very idea so alien to your design methodology that the temptation never arises in the first place?

Tod Williams/Billie Tsien (TW/BT): Our work comes from a slow process—it moves from a very practical grounding based on the conditions (both opportunities and constraints) of the site, the program of the client, and the budget. We start with a general sense of:

  • The kind of construction—since the foundations are concrete we usually but not always continue with concrete
  • The structure—generally straightforward
  • The tiniest glimmer of a “thought or quality” that we are after

Then there is both an accretion of thoughts, and a “sanding away.” We want to make a building that is specific to its place in the world—and at the same time we hope that it might transcend its immediate context. The projects in our studio “emerge.” This is not a method that leads to immediate answers, and thus creating a “deliberately iconic form” as a first gesture is foreign to what we do.

MM: Your firm explicitly embraces “slowness” in the design process, discourages specialization among staff members, and proclaims the continuing value of hand-drawing. Given the inevitable pressure from clients, financiers, and others to maximize efficiency, how do you manage to stand your ground on these fundamental philosophical points?

TW/BT: Your practice is defined by what you do and what you do not do. We have chosen over time to work primarily for institutional clients. Their time schedules are generally slower and they want their buildings to last and to represent who they are. We are just not the right architects for work that needs to be done with speed and that is primarily financially driven. This is true, as well, for [clients] that want a design but do not want our involvement throughout the whole process. This is a lesson learned over time—each practice needs to understand who they are and what they need to do. This is about living a life more than running a business. That said, we also run a business!

MM: Your projects often have a tactile quality that is relatively rare in modern buildings. Do you see your work as a rebuke—whether conscious or not—to the “machined” aesthetic that the public commonly associates with post-World War II architecture?

TW/BT: Certainly our work is not a rebuke—it is really just our form of an answer. We believe in tactility and in abstraction.

MM: Tod, you attended the Cranbrook School [a preparatory school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, that is part of the famous campus designed by Eliel Saarinen]. How has that experience affected your work as an architect?

TW: I realize the Cranbrook experience has affected nearly [every] fiber of my creative life. I might say the same (though in a different way) is true about my relationship with Billie or my nearly 50 years in New York City. Fifteen of my first 18 years were lived on the campus, from kindergarten through high school. I lived near enough so that I was there constantly and although Cranbrook was my school I learned as much from personal explorations of the landscape, the Science Academy, and the Art Academy as from my teachers and classmates. The best lessons are truly lived rather than learned. In the years since, I have been able to tap into these experiences and share them with Billie and others that we might create an architecture as specific to its own time and place and needs and with the aspiration, the warmth, and rich connectivity that is there at Cranbrook.

MM: Billie, you have a background in painting. Do you still paint—for fun or otherwise—and does your background as a painter influence your approach to design?

BT: I don’t paint—although I spend a lot of time looking at paintings. When I was a resident for two months at the American Academy in Rome, I had two goals—buy shoes and spend as much time as I could just looking at paintings. So Vittore Carpaccio and Lorenzo Lotto, the Bellinis and Pinturicchio were my companions. While Tod understands and “sees” space three-dimensionally, I do see space as primarily flat. I see surfaces, color, and texture. I see space as a sequence of flat planes.

MM: As practitioners who have maintained active teaching careers, do you see a significant disjuncture between architectural academia and practice, and if so, does it concern you?

TW/BT: We do teach. We think of ourselves not as real teachers but as architect/ambassadors from the outside world. There are so many great teachers in architecture schools. And there is much to learn. The best experience is to take a taste of everything. That happens in school. Architecture is a life—and the real learning about practice can only happen when you are practicing.

MM: We must address the proverbial elephant in the room: the recent demolition of the former American Folk Art Museum building by its new owner, the Museum of Modern Art. Setting aside your personal feelings about the loss of a building that you designed (and which won numerous accolades upon its completion just 13 years ago), what do you think are the broader professional, cultural, and civic implications of its destruction?

TW/BT: Well, for us, it has been a huge elephant (or is that a gorilla?). The larger issue, we think, is how to maintain a sense of character in cities (particularly in places where the value of real estate is so high—New York, San Francisco, London). There is a kind of glass-tower homogeneity that erases all sense of scale and neighborhood. So New York starts to look global and anonymous. We believe in the importance of the character of each person and place.