Photo by Samuel Barclay

Photo by Samuel Barclay

fin·ish
v. fin·ished, fin·ish·ing, fin·ish·es
n. 1. The final part; the conclusion
2. The reason for one’s ruin; downfall.
3. Something that completes, concludes, or perfects, especially:
a. The last treatment or coating of a surface: applied a shellac
finish to the cabinet.

b. The surface texture produced by such a treatment or coating.
c. A material used in surfacing or finishing.
4. Completeness, refinement, or smoothness of execution; polish.
The Free Dictionary by Farlex

To finish is to enact a moment of pause and to reflect on the path taken. Often the creation process involves patience and becoming attuned to the spirit of the subject at hand. It is also a moment to recalibrate and make adjustments during the application of making; the end of one track of work can quickly turn into the beginning of another, provoking the question: is the completed object the goal or merely the manifestation of choices taken and not necessarily the ideal? Can one ever really complete an object permanently and call it finished?

Our work at Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects is largely founded upon the notion of permanence. The intention is for the architecture produced to last far beyond conventional standards and to take on new character throughout its life. Whether the project is of a large public scale or a small residence, many of the buildings produced are composed of stone and concrete because of their enduring qualities of weight and substance. The selection of materials is based on their innate properties and how they appeal to our senses. Favorite material choices are those that show evidence of human craft, like the Tombasil plates that comprise the façade at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. The panels harness natural light and shield the building from some of the harsh elements of the city life.

As we craft our work, we constantly ask ourselves:

Does the design work?
How will the space be used?
How exposed are the conditions?
How much will this (object/space) be used?
Is what we’ve done dignified?

These questions help to inform our choice of finishes and shape our design decisions. Frequently Tod pushes the studio to explore ways of creating heavy groundscrapers that touch the earth carefully; Billie inspires us to find ways of leaving traces of the hand and its sensual influences, such as in the ceramic-tiled panel at the core of the Skirkanich lab building at the University of Pennsylvania. Here, custom made tiles impregnated with a fingerprint registration are dispersed in a binary matrix to create a golden field that serves as a greeting board and compass as the user navigates the building. Light is also a factor that is always conscious in our work. It is an intangible finish that activates the spaces we design and the experience we strive to create. These themes constantly resurface in many different forms throughout the body of our work.

Photo: Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

Photo: Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

During the design investigation, we look to precedents that contain similar values to those noted above and to ones that continue to develop basic design concepts in further iterations. In the works of master craftsman Louis Kahn, recurring themes seem to weave their way back into later projects in order to take on new form. At Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, light is a theme that is an integral component of the building. The use of narrow slits between vaults that are open to the sky, with perforated metal reflectors below, wash the ceilings of the vaults with indirect light that changes the feeling of the interior throughout the day. Through this act of revelation, idiosyncrasies of the seemingly unfinished wall and ceiling treatment are provoked to render another version or instance of the material—–a unique finish that can only be experienced at that moment in time. In a later project at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, Kahn recalls the use of another filtering device that manipulates natural light to provide a diffused atmosphere that complements the experience of the art.

Sometimes during the act of making, the stopping point is a temporary stage in a journey that provides a higher level of understanding. These stopping points can be informed by the craftsman’s ability during a particular period of time. As a result, revisiting past subjects is a necessary procedure that allows true evolution to take place. In our recent version of a skylight at Banyan Park for the Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai, India, the accent of light is not the only finished product created by the material’s form. The body of the light apparatus is an object that is physically present within the space and engaged as an architectural element. The objects that were used to mold the final finished product become residual artifacts of the process and take on a life and spirit of their own. These objects may be finished in terms of their contribution to the final product, but they are also unforgettable lessons in the education processes that inspire the rules we use to invent new possibilities.