This last summer we sat down with Cooper Hewitt National Design Award-winning architect Billie Tsien at her Manhattan office on Central Park South. Billie and her husband Tod founded Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in 1986 and have completed master works such as The American Folk Art Museum and The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla; currently they are working on the controversial Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Billie graciously shared some of the behind the scenes process and thinking of their successful architecture practice with us.
Rendering of the west elevation of the Barnes Foundation, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Image: The Barnes Foundation
Can you tell us a bit about your firm’s start-up?
I finished graduate school in 1977 and went to work for Tod; I’ve been here ever since. At that time the office was in Carnegie Hall where live/work studios were built just after the recital hall was completed. The studios are now under renovation and will become a music school. The office operated out of a penthouse on the top floor with huge skylights and no air conditioning. Tod and I married in 1983, and we moved to our current location on Central Park South in 1981, where we had three to four people in the office. We’re currently at 25 people, and we typically have four interns for a period of six months each. Our current staff is down from what it was, and it feels like a good size.
Is there a sweet spot for size in an architecture firm?
A team anywhere from about 12 to the low 20s is a good number; with that size you can do anything. We have very little of what you would consider “support staff” and only two non-architects in the office. Everybody is directly responsible for the work of the firm, and integration into the studio is crucial. Everybody is involved at all different levels and everybody understands the trajectory of the projects. The studio acts as an organism. Working here is a good education; nothing is hidden and the staff can see what it actually takes to make a firm work. The people that work here are very committed.
What kind of breakdowns does your system inherently have? What are the breakdowns when it doesn’t work?
At times we’ll continue to design beyond our fee. We try to pick our battles and become clear about where it makes sense to continue and where it doesn’t. One of the hardest things you learn as an architect is what to accept and what to not accept. It’s such a relationship negotiation, and knowing when to stop designing is a potential breakdown for people coming into the office who may not be familiar with the balance we have. As a designer, it’s a personality mindset that determines how far you push people. We want to keep designing, but we have to have some kind of balance between time and money. At some point in a project, you can always stop designing, but that’s no fun.
How do you manage the work-life balance of architecture?
If you can’t balance work and life, you either leave architecture or you end up doing a bad job. How you run a practice when you become older is very important; having kids is a paradigm shift. You just can’t come home at 9 p.m. if you want to see your kids and spend time with them. If there’s an issue at home, it’s the most important issue.
How were you able to sustain the growth, and now, the larger staff that you have in down times?
We know that we can survive in a down economy. Over the last two years, we’ve been busier than we’ve ever been. We’ve worked for institutions that have a certain amount of money set aside, and subsequently, the projects are independent of what the market is doing. The economic climate over the last two years has also offered our clients more construction value for their money.
How have you been able to take on new project types without previous experience regarding that type of work, like a museum, for instance?
The client has to find the right qualities in you. With The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, we showed the client some houses and an art project that we designed prior to getting the project; based on that, the CEO wanted to work with us. You show your most interesting work because it shows how you work; it doesn’t have to be relevant. It’s also important to show images that people understand— images that communicate the feeling of a place. It allows people to respond emotionally to the work. You have to catch people emotionally or intellectually.
It’s commonly remarked that NYC architects rarely get to work on anything in NYC, but you’ve had the opportunity to design some very nice projects just a walk away from your office.
Well, we were in our late 40s and early 50s by the time we completed our first projects in NYC. They were smaller projects, but it gave us a chance to focus on the detailing.
Do you think it’s more difficult to go out on your own as an architect in NYC than in other places?
It’s interesting that how you go into the practice varies depending on your location. I went to school at UCLA, and a lot of people I graduated with started building immediately after school. Starting your own firm while you’re young is more of a West Coast phenomenon. On the West Coast the client base is younger; on the East Coast the client base is older and more established.
It seems that you’ve positioned yourselves well for institutional work.
I think so. I was at a dinner where graphic designer Michael Bierut was relating some advice given to him by Massimo Vignelli. Massimo told him that good work brings in good work, and bad work brings in bad work. Generally, we don’t go after work that is speculative; those projects just need a different kind of architect, people that are more agile. We need to work with people who have values, recognize the longevity of buildings and want to make some contribution to the world or the place.
Do you pursue work, or does work pursue you?
We’re generally asked to be on lists for certain projects. But it’s not as though people come to us and say, “We love you so much that we think you’re the only firm for the job.” I think when you do anything really well for somebody, word gets out whether it’s interior, residential or institutional work. I think the whole issue of people being generally aware of your work is good, but being too easily found isn’t necessarily the best scenario either. We don’t actively scan for potential jobs, and we don’t like competitions very much because we’re not very good at them. We do best with interviews with potential clients.
When you’re on the shortlist of a client who has sought you out, how does that process work?
Generally, we have to go to the client (rather than meeting at our office), and it’s usually the same architects being considered every time. Some architects have prepared drawings and models, and others have an incredible silver tongue. Now that we’re more experienced, we don’t actually think about who we’re talking to. The conversation is more about being who we are rather than catering to each project. When we talk about our ideas, we can’t talk about them in architectural terms. The ideas have to be presented in a way that makes them clear to someone who doesn’t understand a building section. How do we talk about ideas in a way that people will understand? Tod and I are different people, and that works well because I feel that if people can’t relate to one, they can relate to the other; the collaborations are healthy. The way we think about things is very, very different; Tod thinks about things three-dimensionally. I think much more in two dimensions.
Have you found that you don’t want to share too much in the interview process because it’s too easy for a potential client to form an immediate opinion?
I think our work is more experiential rather than made up of cognizant images. We like potential clients to visit our work if we’re seriously being considered. For us, design is more slow to come, more slow to develop. We also really believe that design comes from the process. Thom Mayne often comes into the initial interview with numerous physical models; and if that’s what the client wants, then there’s nothing you can do to change their mind.
Looking at this group of people that you’re typically competing against, it sounds like you prefer the client to sit with you, face to face.
Not all people want a designer like us; Tod would say that it’s more important to know what projects to say no to. You say to yourself, life’s too short; it helps direct your practice. You start to steer yourself and know what is or isn’t right for you. It doesn’t feel good to be rejected, but a lot of times it’s okay—it’s just not a fit.
You won the Barnes commission based on a narrative rather than drawings or models. Can you discuss that a bit?
Our ideas were based on a simple diagram. When you visit the site, the existing program is a building set within a garden. When the new Barnes Collection moves to downtown Philadelphia, the garden is retained within the building; the gardens are brought into the galleries. Strict parameters of the program prevented us from changing the plans, so our idea was to spread the building apart and insert gardens and classrooms in between. The educational component of the Barnes Collection is also very important to us, and we want to retain it.
The decision of the Barnes Foundation to move the collection from suburban Pennsylvania to downtown Philadelphia has put TWBTA in a crossfire of controversy. Do you think an architect is required to take a political stance? Or are you able to draw a line in the sand and just concentrate on the architecture?
The new location and program are carrying the educational mission to people who wouldn’t be able to access it otherwise. The current location of the Barnes Collection has limited access; it’s only a resource for people who have a car. I understand the specialness of a kind of house-museum that’s tucked away; there are great places like the Wharton Esherick Studio, but that’s much more idiosyncratic. If you look at this collection, it’s one of the most important collections in the world. That it’s been so hard to get to is a loss. The people who take classes at the existing location have mostly been from a retired, well-to-do demographic; I think it’s good that the new location will open the collection up to more people—a more ethically and socially diverse audience. I think this is what Dr. Barnes would have wanted.
We understand that the restraints of the project were very detailed.
There were six architects considered for the project, and we all had to agree to respect the organization of the existing building; the wall paintings would need to remain in their respective locations and the sequence of the galleries had to be “replicated.”
How is the design being received?
The design of the new Barnes Foundation has weight and respect but, nonetheless, we’re going to be trashed by some people who feel strongly that the museum should stay where it is.
So the design of the Barnes Collection put you in a classic situation of sorts; when should an architect act on an ethical opinion?
I couldn’t do it if I didn’t believe in the projects that we take on. We recently said no to a large project in India because of some ethical differences we had; the project would be sucking up what little water is available to the community. There is a clear line for me. I deeply believe that Barnes’ educational mission is fulfilled by moving the museum downtown.
American Folk Art Museum, NY, NY. Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Photo: Michael Moran
There’s quite a bit of coverage in the news about the American Folk Art Museum in New York; the institution is selling the facility designed by TWBTA to MOMA and moving into a different space. How has this affected you?
Emotionally, it’s very painful. We don’t do that many buildings, and this one is so important to us. MOMA owns the site to the west, and the American Folk Art Museum is in the way of the development that Gerald Hines would like to do. If it’s torn down, it will be very difficult. There were articles that said the architecture killed the building, but today’s story is forgotten tomorrow. Architecture can only claim so much responsibility for the success or failure of an organization; there’s also the institution.
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Photo: Michael Moran
In wrapping up, if you were us, would you have asked yourself anything else?
Tod and I were talking the other day: Why are we doing what we do? And I guess that’s a question that I would ask myself. People retire at a certain age—who would I be if I wasn’t an architect? It becomes completely entwined with who you are as a human being.