Critical Visions, 2008 RAIA National Conference

A series of evocative, slightly abstract images marked the start of Billie Tsien’s keynote address at CV08. Described by Tsien as “objects of beauty and use” in the folk art tradition, these images set the tone for the address that touched on six Tod Williams/Billie Tsien (TWBTA) projects focussing on her particular approach to each architectural problem.

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, as partners in work and love, have created a truly enviable architectural practice. Tsien spoke about their 16th floor Carnegie Hall apartment of over 30 years – apparently at the urging of Williams – is a compact, light-filled space, characterised by traditional art collected over the years. By revealing this personal space upfront, she set the tone for the projects that followed.

American Folk Art Museum (2001)
Part of New York’s famous Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) family, the American Folk Art Museum is a compact, vertical building, characterised by large stair that winds a path through the building. Tsien affectionately called it the “jewel in the belly button of MOMA”. As an infill building, the verticality of the form was generated in response to the context and site plan constraints, where the site is only 12 x 30 metres and accommodates a 2,800m2 program.

American Folk Art Museum street facade
The 53rd Street facade of cast white bronze panels (American Folk Art Museum, 2001)

Typically for TWBTA there are subtleties in the design, such as the angled sections of on the main facade in order to catch morning and afternoon sunlight which reveals surface detail, that highlight the depth of their design process. The surface detail apparent in the main elevation is the result of a exploratory prototyping process involving cast white bronze to create richly furrowed panels that add a layer of detail to the facade. Extensive research and reinterpretation of materials, not often employed in architecture, is integral to all their projects and, to me, distinguishes TWBTA’s portfolio from other US architects.

As the galleries are stacked vertically, the museum is a “circulation rich experience” according to Tsien where the main stair in the core of the building and becomes a “basket that holds the light” from a skylight overhead. The internal spaces are idiosyncratic as Tsien says she is searching for buildings that are slowly discovered – not one liners – where there is a possibility of a dual reading of the architecture.

We are community. We as architects are leaving our mark on the world.
[Billie Tsien, 12 April 2008]

Cranbrook Natatorium (1999)
Within the context of a Eliel Saarinen designed campus with subsequent buildings by Moneo and Holl, the Cranbrook Natatorium, Michigan is a naturally ventilated pool with occuli (circular openings) in the roof allow light and air to circulate, sometimes even snow! Tsien described it as a “bent arm” building with walls in the landscape rather than terminating the grass courtyard on the site axis. Similar to Shim-Sutcliffe’s re-appropriation of greenhouse skylight systems, Tsien used mining industry technology for the window and roof opening control mechanisms.

View along the \
View along the bent arm of the Cranbrook Natatorium (1999)
Ceiling openings at Cranbrook Natatorium (1999)
A huge ceiling opening at Cranbrook Natatorium (1999)

Starr East Asian Library (2008)
The result of a 13 year gestation, the Starr East Asian Library, University of California at Berkley was completed earlier this year. Responding to the neo-classical existing library, the 6,317m2 building is “a box for books” that is set into the slope of the site with a “face” (facade) fabricated from granite panels and a bronze screen cast in China. This screen filters natural light to the interior like a veil. Internal spaces were influenced by the Long Room at Trinity College, Dublin. Without the benefit of actually visiting the building, the interior appears far more successful than the relatively bland (for TWBTA) exterior envelope.

Diffuse natural lighting (Starr East Asian Library, 2008)
Outlook from the Reading Room in the Starr East Asian Library (2008)
Outlook from the Reading Room (Starr East Asian Library, 2008)

Tata Consultancy Services Campus (2010)
In a similar fashion, the Tata Consultancy Services Campus in Mumbai, India incorporates a modern interpretation of a “jali”, a traditional stone carved screen used for centuries as both sunshade and ventilated wall. Interestingly, the construction process has commenced and Tsien explained the need for full-size prototypes of various facade elements to ensure quality and that the material detail is clearly understood. Close work with handcrafted materials and artisans was apparent in most of the buildings presented in the keynote and the Tata Campus, despite it’s sheer size, is no different for TWBTA.

Projects Presented (in order)

Additional TWBTA Resources

Also in this series… Christoph IngenhovenFrancine HoubenBrigitte Shim, and Chris Wilkinson


3 thoughts on “Billie Tsien: Resistance

Comments are closed.