The New York office of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architecture.
Credit: Ian Allen

The New York office of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architecture.

As Sam Farber, a former American Folk Art Museum trustee, tells it, there were three firms in the running in the late 1990s for the commission to design the institution’s town-house-scaled home on West 53rd Street. “The other two firms came to the interview with models. Tod and Billie came and said, ‘We really can’t give you a model, because we really don’t know what we’re going to do.’ ” They told the museum’s building committee, headed by Farber, that they needed to talk with everyone involved—collectors, curators, staff—before they could even begin the design process. “I thought, ‘That’s marvelous,’ ” Farber recalls. Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA), of course, got the job, and built a little museum that opened to much acclaim just three months after Sept. 11. The New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp declared: “The Rebuilding of New York has already begun.”

The method Farber describes—starting without preconceived notions, demonstrating a willingness to listen, and developing a design based on a deep understanding of what is truly desired—applies to all of the firm’s work. “I think we have signature values,” Tod Williams, FAIA, says. “But not a signature style.” When Williams and Tsien’s clients describe the buildings in which they work or live, they don’t just talk about the beauty of the views or the materials—although those qualities come up—but they credit the architecture with having an uncanny effect on the lives within.

For instance, Dr. Einar Gall of the 1995 Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, Calif., says that the design of the buildings so effectively promoted socializing among researchers that “we believe that these interactions led to several important discoveries that would not have been made in their absence.” And Alan Silverman, who with his wife, Gretchen Freeman, owns the 1996 Desert House in Phoenix, says that it “helped our children to develop a sense of daily, intimate interaction with the desert.”

Most of TWBTA’s buildings are like the Folk Art Museum. They are small, but so sure of themselves that it would be inaccurate to call them modest. They are confident buildings, but not boastful ones. They have a way of insinuating themselves into the landscape, behaving as if they’ve always been there. Every material has been chosen with great thought; each texture an expression of some intrinsic value. To enter a TWBTA building is not simply to experience the results of the architects’ skill at listening to their clients, but to be privy to a conversation that Williams and Tsien have been having with one another for over three decades.

Michael Moran

The Neurosciences Institute
La Jolla, Calif., 1995
The idea of “taking a program for what might be a singular building and splitting it,” observes Billie Tsien, AIA, is a theme that “reappears in our work.” The Neurosciences Institute (today controlled by the Scripps Research Institute) is a case in point—a cluster of three buildings, largely buried in the landscape, with a plaza at the center. “We’re not interested in making a building that is an object,” Tsien continues. “By making separate buildings, it becomes more of a place than a thing.” Conceived of by researchers who desired a “scientific monastery” dedicated to a deeper understanding of the brain and consciousness, it is cherished by those who work there for the variety of views of both architectural detail and the natural environment. The architecture, according to research director W. Einar Gall, fostered discovery by promoting social interaction between scientists. For instance, a sleep researcher and an insect behavior specialist crossed paths at the institute, and through their collaboration demonstrated “for the first time that insects actually sleep.”

Michael Moran

Desert House
Phoenix, Ariz., 1996
The Silverman-Freeman house is, in a way, a prototype for many of the TWBTA projects that followed. “That house was trying to be quiet, and of the desert, and simple,” Tsien says. It is broken into components: In this case, two simple rectangular buildings that sit on either side of a desert wash that attracts greenery and animal life. The two wings are connected by bridges, one enclosed and one open. “I really like standing in the house’s indoor bridge,” says homeowner Gretchen Freeman, “and looking out over the wash. The view provides the sensation of being right in the middle of the desert, away from the city.” The home serves as a template for the firm’s approach to surfaces, a whole palette of textures and effects conjured from one basic material: concrete. The house is built of insulated concrete block walls, sandblasted or polished, and concrete floors that have been ground into terrazzo. “I love the way Tod and Billie used common materials to create a special, uncommon home,” says Freeman’s husband, Alan Silverman.

Michael Moran/OTTO

Cranbrook Natatorium
Bloomfield Hills, Mich., 1999
“They managed to transform the experience of swimming indoors,” says Reed Kroloff, a former competitive swimmer and the director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum, and imbue it “with all of the wonder and freshness of swimming outdoors.” Explains Williams: “When you swim in a pool, you use air conditioning to dehumidify. Here we used natural ventilation. The walls and ceiling open. When they do, there’s always a fan that’s blowing, and the breezes come through, so you smell the pine forest instead of chlorine.” But the magic of the place is not just in the ventilation system. It’s about how the random patterns of lights in the deep blue ceiling mimic the effect of swimming under a nighttime sky. It’s about how a combination of windows that meet the pool deck and a hilly site make swimmers feel “as if you’re swimming through the trees,” Kroloff says. In the roof are two 30-foot-wide occuli, which the natatorium staff will sometimes open during a snowstorm. “Snow comes through like a column,” says Kroloff, and then melts before hitting the water.

Michael Moran/OTTO

American Folk Art Museum
New York, 2001
“They thought it would be fait accompli, no big deal,” says Tsien, speculating about what the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) officials were thinking when they recently announced their intention to demolish the Folk Art Museum. “I think MoMA has been totally shocked by the fact that there’s opposition.” The tiny eight-story museum, squeezed onto a footprint just 40 by 100 feet, is notable not just for its opaque, sculpted façade, but for the staircase that wends through the upper floors, doubling as a gallery, with artworks displayed along the way. In fact, this feature pays homage to the museum’s potential destroyer. Williams explains: “One of the things we always loved about the old MoMA: You remember walking up the stairs and getting to that Oskar Schlemmer painting?” He means the one that shows people climbing the Bauhaus staircase. “That was a touchstone.” Williams and Tsien also recall how they brought the whole construction crew to the Cooper Hewitt’s Triennial to immerse them in the values of design. It was their way of telling the workers, in Williams’s words, “This is not just any piece of work. We want you to give your best, because it’s something you’ll leave behind.”

Nic Lehoux

David Rubenstein Atrium
New York, 2009
“What I’m genuinely surprised by is, whenever I enter the space, how serene it is even when it’s packed,” says Lincoln Center president Reynold Levy about the David Rubenstein Atrium, a privately owned public space directly across Columbus Avenue from Lincoln Center’s famous plaza. According to Levy, one of the reasons Williams and Tsien were chosen for the project was that “they were passionate about what they could do with the space. They understood that it needed to serve as a kind of Lincoln Center commons.” When the architects talk about the odd space, wedged in between two buildings, in which they designed the 9,600-square-foot annex, it’s with great conviction. Tsien says that they wanted to make the atrium feel “like a garden or a refuge.” She cites the large green walls, the water feature, the 97-foot-long felt mural by Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra—and the well-maintained public restrooms. “We wanted this to be a place where people who are homeless could be sitting next to someone who was having a glass of prosecco before they go to the opera. All people would be welcome into a place that felt calm, controlled, and beautiful.”

Michael Moran

Center for the Advancement of Public Action
Bennington College, Vt., 2011
The center, says Bennington president Elizabeth Coleman, is intended to “foster a lively give-and-take about how to move the needle on complex public issues.” Like many TWBTA projects, this is a suite of buildings: a symposium space, a small residence hall, and a multipurpose facility called the Lens. From a distance, the complex appears to exude that lovely white-washed glow so common in Vermont. The buildings, with geothermic heating and cooling, are clad in marble reclaimed from six defunct local quarries. According to one of its resident fellows, Gong Szeto, a noted interaction designer, the center was intended to look and feel like a “ ‘secular church,’ a place where people gather … to contemplate the deeper meanings and relationships between an individual, her polity, and the complexities of the society within which she lives.” Adds Tsien: “There’s a sense of gathering together in an almost Quaker way.”

Tom Rossiter

Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts
University of Chicago, Ill., 2012
This arts center features a 172-foot-tall tower clad in long bars of golden limestone, which affords expansive views across Midway Plaisance, an Olmsted-designed green. The rest of the complex is housed in a low, industrial-style remake topped by successive ridges of skylights. “Tod and Billie were chosen because of their vision to create a beacon for the arts with their dramatic tower,” says Logan’s executive director, Bill Michel. “It was so complex to actually build a tower of the arts and make it really work,” Williams says, “that about two or three years into it we just said, ‘Mea culpa, we cannot do this. You have to get rid of this tower.’ ” The recession, of all things, rescued the project. “The economy tanked just at the right moment, and we made it on budget because suddenly contractors were desperate for work.”


Tata Consultancy Services
Mumbai India, Phase 1, 2012
“We had never been to India,” Williams confesses. Nor had TWBTA ever done any corporate work. Nonetheless, they were approached nine years ago by Ratan Tata, chairman of a $100 billion global conglomerate encompassing everything from steel mills to the luxurious Taj hotel chain. “We said we don’t do corporate work. Why are you asking us?” Tata gave three reasons. He told the architects that he believed they were responsive to nature and the 23-acre campus, called Banyan Park, had 1,800 trees on it. He said that he thought they cared about “material culture,” something that’s important in India. And Tata’s third reason, according to Williams, was “you don’t have a signature like my classmate at Cornell, Richard Meier.” “We were immediately won over,” Williams says. Tsien and Williams spent the early years of the project traveling in India to learn about indigenous materials. The complex, one-third complete, is a compendium of their finds: concrete and local stone, carved panels known as Jali screens, China tile mosaics and Ikat fabrics. “All the circulation is outdoors,” Tsien explains. “It’s shaded. There are cut-throughs so you feel breezes. Only the work spaces are air conditioned.”

Firm of the Year Advisory Jury
Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA (chair) Richter Architects, Corpus Christi, Texas; Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA Foster + Partners, London; Marlene S. Imirzian, AIA Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects, Phoenix; Beverly J. Prior, FAIA HMC + Beverly Prior Architects, San Francisco; William D. Sturm, AIA Serena Sturm Architects, Chicago; Carole C. Wedge, FAIA Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, Boston; David G. Woodcock, FAIA College Station, Texas; David Zach David Zach, Futurist, Milwaukee