The works of Tod Williams, FAIA, and
Billie Tsien beg to be touched. Walk up to their Neurosciences
Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and you find yourself running
a hand over the low-slung buildings long concrete walls,
which have been softened by heavy sandblasting to expose their
blue-green aggregate. Or go inside their addition to the Phoenix
Art Museum and compare the smoothness of a grand limestone
stair with that of its cast-in-place concrete mate. The architects
bring out the timeless qualities of materials such as stone,
concrete, steel, glass, and wood, and they experiment with
newer ones such as Homasote, plastic laminates, and resins.
Theirs is a tactile architecture.
Having worked together since 1977 and
been partners since 1986, Williams and Tsien (who are married
to each other) have developed a practice known for its lyrical
designs that bring out the humanity in institutional buildings
and highlight the poetic in residential ones.
Although many of their projects involve
the arts, the architects have tackled a broad range of commissions.
They have designed sets and costumes for the Elisa Monte Dance
Company, an installation for Isamu Noguchi light sculptures,
swimming pools for educational institutions, college dormitories,
houses, lofts, and museums. They describe their work as emphasizing
the importance of place and explor[ing] the nature of
materials. The mission statement for their office states,
Whatever we design must be of use, but at the same time
transcend its use. It must be rooted in time and site and
client needs, but it must transcend time and site and client
Early in his career Williams worked
for Richard Meier, while Tsien spent several years as a painter
before completing her architectural studies. Today, the couple
is finishing work on the Museum of American Folk Art in New
York City and the Student Arts Center at Johns Hopkins University
in Baltimore, both of which will open this year. In 2000 the
Monacelli Press published a monograph on Williams and Tsien,
entitled Work/Life. record senior editor Clifford Pearson
caught up with the architects recently and spoke to them about
materials and architecture.
Architectural Record: The cover of your new book has a close-up
photo of the cast-metal panels that will clad the main facade
of the Museum of American Folk Art on 53rd Street. The book
cover and your buildings themselves send a message about the
importance of materials. Could you explain how you go about
selecting and using materials?
Ive heard people say, Oh, Williams and Tsien,
theyre experimenting with materials. They seem
to think we go to the closet, set out a bunch of materials,
and see what happens. We do almost the opposite. We try to
hold the materials at bay for as long as possible. We keep
asking ourselves what is the right material. And the right
one is not found by going into a box and just picking something
It comes slowly. And requires a lot of very boring problem
solving. Someone in our office might say, Lets
try fiberglass. Tod and I will reply, Okay, then
youd better figure out how to make it fire-retardant.
Once they make it fire-retardant, then it doesnt look
like fiberglass anymore. So people in our office will send
things to fabricators, asking if they would make samples.
Things go back and forth, back and forth. Theres a great
deal of struggle. Its not just picking stuff out of
the storage room. Materials emerge from a particular place
and from some very dull grunt work.
We think about materials for a building as much from the inside
going out, as from the outside going in.
start with what is particular to a problem. For example, with
the folk art museum, which right now has a very strong presence,
we tried to find a material that would be unique in a certain
way and would have a sense of the human hand being involved
in making it. Now its true that all manufactured materials
have some hand involved, but its not always so visible.
The challenge was to establish a direct relationship between
what you see and how it was made, so you make a connection
between the hand and the finished object.
were going to display the material in such a way as
to show how its connected to the building. When the
museum opens in December, everyone in the press will talk
about the panels because theyre out front. But the building
will be important not because of the panels but because of
the space-making inside.