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Material Affairs
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By Clifford A. Pearson

© Michael Moran

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 building’s 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 needs.”

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?

Tod Williams: I’ve heard people say, “Oh, Williams and Tsien, they’re 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 out.

Billie Tsien: It comes slowly. And requires a lot of very boring problem solving. Someone in our office might say, “Let’s try fiberglass.” Tod and I will reply, “Okay, then you’d better figure out how to make it fire-retardant.” Once they make it fire-retardant, then it doesn’t 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. There’s a great deal of struggle. It’s not just picking stuff out of the storage room. Materials emerge from a particular place and from some very dull grunt work.

TW: We think about materials for a building as much from the inside going out, as from the outside going in.

BT: We 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 it’s true that all manufactured materials have some hand involved, but it’s 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.

TW: And we’re going to display the material in such a way as to show how it’s connected to the building. When the museum opens in December, everyone in the press will talk about the panels because they’re out front. But the building will be important not because of the panels but because of the space-making inside.

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