New COTE Advisory Group member: Billie Tsien, AIA
This month, we share the voice of the third of four new COTE Advisory Group members, Billie Tsien, AIA. (Learn about Julie Snow, FAIA, here, and about Billie Faircloth, AIA, here; the voice of Kira Gould, Allied AIA, will appear in a future issue.)
Billie Tsien began working with Tod Williams in 1977 and they co-founded their architecture practice, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners, in 1986. The New York studio focuses on work for “organizations and people that value issues of aspiration and meaning, timelessness and beauty.” The firm has received national and international recognition. Tsien, as well as Williams, maintains an active academic career. We asked Tsien to respond to questions in her own words:
What do you hope to do as part of COTE?
That is not yet completely clear. The honest reason is that I don’t know what I have to contribute and I know I have a lot to learn. Since Tod and I are first of all practitioners I hope to express our commitment to climate action through our work. Since we also are teachers and over the years have developed relationships with many other teachers and schools I hope to help send out the message contained in the Framework to everyone we know involved in the education of designers.
How do you see AIA and the profession’s role in the climate change era?
I believe that if the AIA did not take a stand on climate action, it would be abrogating its responsibility. We, as architects, make things in the world that consume tremendous energy, material, and create a lasting impact. I don’t see that the profession has a choice but to address this issue. What the AIA can do is another question. I believe that this really needs to be a commitment by a studio or a firm, and by architects themselves.
One of the challenges for COTE and for those advocating sustainable thinking and practices has been the tendency to see sustainability measures as something separate from design itself. If that is something you have considered, could you comment on that?
There is a philosophy of sustainability that suggests that, in many cases, renovating, restoring, adding to might be more appropriate than creating something new. That’s more work and it’s difficult work. It’s not as easy as creating something new. When there is an existing building, there is so much more to deal with. Grappling with all of how you connect, where you connect, what you take away, and what you add … this is very hard work, but very worthwhile. That is a philosophical basis for a practice that recognizes the value of sometimes not making something new.
Also, there is the understanding that what you make or build is not temporary. It might be a 100-year building. For us it is less of a statement and more of a container for peoples’ lives. That is a very basic way that we think about sustainability. We want a building to last, and take on identities that it needs to take on … and maybe be more quiet than projects making more of an outward statement. We bring a sustainability of approach and values that builds in flexibility for new evolving technologies.
And sometimes it is just about acknowledgement of the climate and context. For instance, we are building in India: we are not building glass buildings there that would need a huge amount of AC, and naturally ventilating as much as possible. That’s not a breakthrough, but it’s a recognition of conditions.
Some designers seem to see climate action as extraneous, political, or otherwise inappropriate to insert into design, practice, and the AIA. What is your perspective on this?
Climate change is a reality. The current pandemic is its partner. The world has been turned upside down and we all are now facing a new reality that we have for so long avoided or denied. We have no choice but to try to change the world as we know it.
Is your firm a signatory of the 2030 Commitment?
I believe there are many ways that members of the AIA and all architects can support the initiatives put forth in the 2030 Commitment's framework. However we are not all cut from the same cloth. What is important is that we work toward the same goals it outlines while staying true to the uniqueness of each of our firms’ values and approach.
Over our careers in both practice and teaching Tod and I have chosen emotion and experience over metrics. We certainly err on the immeasurable side of Kahn’s “measurable and immeasurable.” Yet we are deeply committed in all we do to make buildings that last and are loved. We have always designed with a deep attention to the ecology, culture, and resources of any given place we build. There must be a room in this movement for those of us who are believers but who want to reach the same destination without using the same markers. So we have not signed the 2030 Commitment, but share its common goal.