Michael Moran/OTTO
The history of architecture is often dissembled into the history of styles. Even the modern, whose pioneers explicitly rejected historicist or vernacular forms, was reduced to the International Style—white walls and ocean-liner railings. And we live in an interesting moment in the history of styles. On the screens of my sharpest young students are no longer the parametric pinwheels or blobby billows that were a digitally enhanced memory of the last self-consciously curated consensus style, so-called Deconstructivism. Instead it’s all 1986, all the time: James Stirling, Charles Moore, Raimund Abraham, Oswald Ungers, and Aldo Rossi at his most Giorgio de Chirico.

Some of this is the usual fascination with the aesthetics of the era of one’s birth. (Up next: early ’90s Neil Denari, AIA, Michael Rotondi, FAIA, and Tom Kundig, FAIA?) But the rest is something else. It’s a search by a digitally disembodied and displaced generation for what those titans of the ’80s cared about: a substantial materiality in stone, steel, and glass; a sense of place and position in landscape and cityscape; a feeling for the tactile, the sensory, the phenomenal; and the intimation (often through a classicizing shorthand of arcades and colonnades) that all buildings have not just historicist parts, but historical pasts.

1986 was a good year for Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, who run a remarkable New York–based practice that, steady as oxen along a furrow, has cultivated a different field altogether. Or perhaps, immune to style, they have been sustaining these enduring values all along: situated place, embodied sense, and intimated time. 1986 was the year that Williams and Tsien began their practice together. Partners in both life and design, the two had met at work in 1977, as the former was finding his way after work with Richard Meier, FAIA, and the latter was getting into architecture from the fine arts.

Michael Moran/OTTO
It was also the year they built Feinberg Hall at Princeton University. I walked past that singular building every day when I was an architecture student myself, and I sometimes wonder if that was my real education. It’s a foursquare little dormitory pushed into a steep hillside, a stocky tower with a steeply pitched standing-seam roof, and an attached stair tower topped by a glass butterfly-roof canopy out of Stirling’s sweetest dreams. It embodies every kind of architectural paradox—somehow both austere and playful, minimal and maximal, and shy and bold all at once. It’s assembled out of straightforward materials that are plainly expressed in a modern way—gray concrete masonry units and kit-of-parts, off-the-shelf hardware. And yet, like a gothic finial enlarged to building size, it’s possessed of a miniature monumentality and almost geological inevitability that enables it to hold its own among the architectural grandiosities of that campus. Each of its four façades, varied in the manner of a Palladian villa, hints at a complex interior life. Taking a shortcut under its stair tower was like walking under the legs of a moody, yet benign, elephant. Or sphinx.

Williams and Tsien return to Princeton in 2015 with the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment—a lab complex that expands on the values found in that earlier structure: an orthogonal yet geological massing that pushes into the earth, a system of cuts and courts that bring daylight deep into its interiors, and a suite of accommodating details that vary in scale from furniture to architecture and give the body somewhere to go. All of Williams and Tsien’s projects are unusually attuned to the materiality and detailing of their natural and built environments—so much so that when they are viewed out of those contexts, they can seem almost eclectic. But they constitute rigorously consistent research into fundamental subjects: program and place; parts and wholes; choreography and circulation; weight and light.

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners

I ask Williams about these qualities of the Andlinger Center, and the not dissimilar Tata Consultancy Services campus in Mumbai, India (see below). “It’s not about looking at something but about being in it,” Williams says, “which is an idea that takes us back to our beginning. I’d only done two houses by the age of 40. Largely we did interiors. We love interiors. We believe in them. The inside is where architecture starts.” Tsien adds: “One of the best places to be is a courtyard—protected but outdoors, inside but outside. We have this sense of making places that feel like that.” Like, Williams interjects, “a building turned inside out.”

“You were skeptical about architecture,” Williams says to Tsien in that same conversation, recalling when the two met. “I didn’t like the way that even as you tie up every little knot in architecture, things start to come untied,” Tsien clarifies. “That’s how life is, some things are perfected and some things fall apart.”

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners

Perhaps some architects, especially masters of style, detect that skepticism. And their praise for Williams and Tsien can smack of backhandedness: to say that they are masters of material practice—which they are—is to label them mere craftspeople; to say that they know something about the lyrical and ineffable—which they do—is to label them mere dreamers. But Williams and Tsien, and their work, sustain those seeming contradictions, and that healthy skepticism as well.

The thing that fell apart the most in Williams and Tsien’s work since 1986 was the 2014 demolition of their American Folk Art Museum—a willful side-effect of the neighboring Museum of Modern Art’s expansion. Like a kid sister to the original Penn Station, the Folk Art Museum, whose opening in late 2001 was an inadvertent expression of urban resilience, is now a landmark in New York’s invisible city. It’s impossible to consider Williams and Tsien’s oeuvre without acknowledging the building’s absence. But even as it was briefly iconic for its heavyweight cast-metal façade—a preemptive critique of everything glassy and glossy that would surround and supersede it—the museum’s essential quality was its outward-looking interiority. Even deep inside that seemingly closed-off structure—the whole of it a continuous staircase of landings and liftoffs—calibrated alignments and openings directed the eye back out onto the city. This quality of procession and perception is sustained in all of Williams and Tsien’s work.

They were drawing that very building when Michael Moran captured them in the October 1998 photograph (facing page) that’s steadily become—Pinterest page by Pinterest page—an icon of collaborative architects at work, displacing hackneyed heroic shots of Howard Roark in all his incarnations. At left, Williams in a black t-shirt, floating a pencil speculatively over a roll of trace. At right, Tsien with a pinkie ring, left hand at her temple as if drawing the ideas out or holding them in, right hand resting in the bend of her arm as if checking those ideas against the wisdom of the body. “Billie likes to be in the courtyard,” Williams says. “I like to be wandering.” Together in the photo, they conjure up a restless stillness, a quick quietude, a style of substance, the essence of a body of work in progress.

Recent Projects
(Click on the project name for a full Project Gallery article on each.)

Michael Moran/OTTO

Center for the Advancement of Public Action, Bennington College
Bennington, Vt.

Michael Moran/OTTO

First Congregational United Church of Christ
Washington, D.C.

Michael Moran/OTTO

Tata Consultancy Services, Banyan Park, Phase 1
Mumbai, India

Michael Moran/OTTO

Savidge Library Complex, The MacDowell Colony
Peterborough, N.H.

Michael Moran/OTTO

Kim and Tritton Residence Halls, Haverford College
Haverford, Pa. 

Jeremy Bittermann

Further Lane House
Amagansett, N.Y.