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An Interview with Billie Tsien

By Annie Chu FAIA posted 09-09-2013 10:31 PM


An Interview with Billie Tsien, AIA
Principal, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

By: Annie Chu
Principal, Chu+Gooding Architects
Professor of Interior Architecture, Woodbury University

“ 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…

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.  “

Excerpt from a piece written for by Zach Mortice, Managing Editor, AIArchitect

- For the full article see

- Also see the AIA produced 2013 Firm of the Year Award Presentation Video

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects – Philosophy

We see architecture as an act of profound optimism.
Its foundation lies in believing that it is possible to make places on the earth that can give a sense of grace to life - and believing that that matters.  It is what we have to give and it is what we leave behind.

We wrote these words a number of years ago and believe in them even more deeply today.
We measure the value of our work by the quiet pleasure of the lives lived in our buildings.
We want to solve problems and we want to transcend solutions.
We try to work with a thoughtful integrity to make buildings that will last and be loved.
We want to leave good marks upon this earth.

This work comes from two voices and from many voices

 One of the core values of your firm’s work is about making. How do you promote the culture of making in your firm?

We believe that what the physical realization of work is what counts. So when someone works on a project we want them to visit the quarry, spend time with the cabinetmaker, go to the brick factory, understand how the tile is lazed, sit on the upholstery at the upholstery shop and of course spend time on the construction site.  This is where young architects can understand how other people make their drawings become real.  And there is so very much to learn from the people who are the actual makers.Of course we still make physical models and in the studio we often draw details full scale in order to understand how they relate to our own bodies.  We also try when possible to have full scale mock ups in order to better understand how certain details not only go together (and how they work) - but what happens when you move from the 2 dimensional drawing to 3 dimensions.  Sometimes it is a terrible surprise!!


The firm’s work has always leveraged the power of material expression and poetry.  How did you develop your sensibilities towards materials?

As time has passed, we see that we have often chosen to stay with relatively simple forms so that we can spend energy thinking about the materials.  I think all architects love STUFF.  It is just in our natures.  We see and we are moved by looking. We develop sensibilities by keeping our eyes open and waiting/wanting to be "ravished" by beauty.

Where do you seek inspiration?

Inspiration is everywhere. Spending time with a small child teaches you that.

What are any factors such new technologies that are affecting your design these days?

 We use new technologies for communication - revit - I guess.  It is too early to understand how it affects us.  

In your address at the AIA Convention, you inspired the audience with a declaration that the profession of architecture embodies a belief to be of service, and if done with love, the work has the potential to be noble. Would you like to expand on that?

We carry a sense of our own art, our own vision as we act.  However we act at the request of others. If we feel that their request is a burden on our vision - then we are always struggling and unhappy.  If we can embrace their request in a deep and thorough way - then although we serve - we are not servants.  And this can bring the work to a higher level.  And finally if the request is noble then the work has a chance of being noble too.  


At the presentation of your firm’s work at the AIA Convention, you said that the Interior has always been a place of focus because we live so much in that realm.  Can you share some of your favorite interiors?

Imaginary -   The bedroom of the bunny in Good Night Moon

The study in Carpaccio's painting St. Augustine in his Study

Real  -       The living room of Aalto's Villa Mairea

A room we once stayed in at the Tawaraya Ryokan
The Long Room at the Trinity College Library in Dublin

What do you do to relax and recharge?

books  books  books  and looking at art with Tod


How has the Chinese family culture you were brought up in influenced you in your work and attitude?

I think that the sense of propriety and reticence is very much a part of all of our buildings.
There is always a sense of slow unfolding so that what you see on the outside doesn't necessarily tell you what will happen on the inside.
  Also - I believe in frugality.


What advice would you give to a recent graduate or emerging professional in our discipline?

My advice is to work for someone you respect. My second piece of advice is to go and see as much of the world as possible.  One cannot have an opinion about any building unless you have seen it with your own eyes.


Any advice for young women in our discipline?

The balance of children and work is extra hard - (this goes back to working for people you respect - because they should understand that you are trying to make this balance work) but it is worth it.  If you do have kids - they will grow up learning to always look and then have an opinion about what they see.  What a marvelous education.  And you will learn to find inspiration (see above ) in the most common places and that is a child's gift to you.  And you don't have to act like a jerk or a diva to be powerful.

What are some of your favorite Words? Objects? Artists?

Silence is a good word

Many of my favorite artists record places and faces - so Winslow Homer, Vittore Carpaccio, Bronzino, Lorenzo Lotto.
I also just love inexplicable and sometimes severe beauty - so Joan Mitchell, Milton Avery, Sean Scully.
And it is good to be confounded - Phillip Guston

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects Selected Images:

Asia Society_Hong Kong Center_photo by Michael Moran

 Barnes Foundation_Philadelphia_photo by Michael Moran

Barnes Foundation_Philadelphia_photo by Michael Moran

TATA Consultancy Services_Mumbai_photo by TWBTA

TATA Consultancy Services_Mumbai_photo by TWBTA

Billie's Desk #1_New York City_photo by TWBTA

Billie's Desk #2_New York City_photo by TWBTA