“Don’t Expect Answers When You’re Not Ready”
November 14, 2019
Billie Tsien and Tod Williams co-founded their eponymous firm, TWBTA, in New York City in 1986. They work primarily for institutions, including schools, museums, and not-for-profits, that value long-term aspirations of timelessness and beauty. Their award-winning buildings emphasize rootedness and attention to texture and material detail that reveal some of their core values: a commitment to creating architecture that ages well and has a lasting cultural character.
Their Advanced Studio at Yale this semester is situated in San Antonio and urges students to consider how the adaptive reuse of the Lerma’s nightclub building in the city’s Westside neighborhood might catalyze a broader social and cultural movement associated with the district’s historic performing arts scene.
Sean Yang: Your firm is committed to designing buildings for institutions that have a longer lifetime than most clients. How can architects become involved with projects that will last longer, and what are the pitfalls of working with clients who are so strongly invested in their own vision?
Tod Williams: I didn’t have any expectations that we would be building for the long run. When I was young, we were doing commercial interiors and it was disappointing, because they would get torn out so quickly. That hurt me because we put our heart and soul into them: I thought we were doing really serious projects, but because they were commercially-based, they largely disappeared.
When I turned forty, I spent six months at the American Academy in Rome, which was my first real experience stepping back from the teaching, doing these interiors and the often experimental projects we had been doing. And I realized that it’s not important where the building is but the way that it connects to the earth that really interests me. And I began to realize that there was a life that was far beyond our lives, and we might be able to work on it.
When we eventually began to get institutional work, it made us more anxious because suddenly we were building for the long run. These were buildings that they wanted to keep around longer, usually, because the institution has been around for a while. At first I felt very intimidated by the responsibility of long-term building, but soon began to realize that the way to get more deeply invested in that was to be very clear that we would do no more commercial work. So our focus shifted only, through belief. You have to believe in what you’re doing.
SY: Did that shift happen due to the projects you were starting to receive or did you start to seek out specific projects?
Billie Tsien: It wasn’t as if people were breaking down our doors and giving us projects. But after a few not-so-good experiences, you realize that you need to say no to certain things as best you can.
TW: And by doing that, you open yourself to more yeses of other types. Not everyone gets the chance to say no to work, but when you do get the chance, you need to know when to let go and when to grab on. I’m constantly reminded of things that I didn’t grab on to that I should’ve kept hold of. But you can’t do more than when you made that decision, and when the opportunity is gone, it’s gone.
Hamzah Ahmed: What did you like about the institutional clients that you began to work with that showed you that they valued your approach to architecture and the increased responsibility that you took over the design?
BT: I think that most institutional clients have some kind of aspiration, which might not be particularly articulated at the time they give you a brief. They somehow want something that goes beyond the financial side of the project.
TW: The basic institution defines itself. The fact that it chooses to be an institution… is an aspiration, but it doesn’t necessarily have a deeper social or intellectual value. And those more abstract values began to have a stronger resonance in our designs.
BT: Quite early on we determined a kind of model, which slowly became a more clear set of values that we believe in. And it really came down to trying to make work for people whose values we share. If you are clear about those values, then I think it’s easier to find clients who in some way share those values with you and then try to articulate the values which come out in the architecture. When we won the competition for the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago (under construction), we didn’t go in with a design without first talking about our values.
TW: There were values and ideas that were bigger than the design. Those values in an institution can occur in an interior too. I remember my very first interior was a small computing company that was a completely ordinary room. We were mainly setting up stations for the plugs for the computers. It could not have been more basic, but it was an important thing for them. When I was organizing the locations of all the outlets, I did it in a way where I believed that the electrical distribution and the way people sat in the room was significant. So it doesn’t have to be the most important job, but that means you’ve got to take that particular assignment seriously. I still believe it doesn’t have to be a big project: there are small steps that lead to bigger steps and those that we go through as we mature. Billie is always saying that we need to be able to talk to our clients or people who are not architects. We try to be able to speak to them in plain language, and we have to convey values because a lot of people can’t see design.
SY: You spoke of finding the clients who aligned with those values or resonated with those values. Is it a lost cause in your experience to try to convince a client who may not have expressed those values initially?
BT: I don’t think so. Clients come to you with an assignment that is usually not perfectly clear. You need to believe that the client doesn’t always know exactly how to present it to you. So that’s why it’s not about convincing them, because you need to make sure that you pull out of them those deeper values that may not be at first apparent.
One of the things that somebody observed about our practice is that if you look at people considered our peers, they’re often doing competition-based work based on images that they produce. Our practice is much more relationship-based. So there is a back and forth conversation between us and the client, trying to understand what values can be expressed and how we can together clarify the central project.
For the Presidential Center, the President is our client and yet we’re working for the Obama Foundation under completely different contracts. One client is individual and aspirational, while the other is based on collective operation: these two things have to come together. You have to believe that those two different characters are one. So we have to be able to make the client complete in our imagination and present ourselves as a whole.
HA: What happens when one client is exchanged for another? For example,
the Folk Art Museum (2001-14) changed hands after the building was built and was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) who demolished it to make way for a very different kind of development. What happens when the crucial entities that govern managerial and economic relationships change altogether?
TW: Well, I would love to blame MoMA only, but I can’t. I don’t think we saw it clearly so part of the blame is on ourselves. For a time I wanted to put a stake in MoMA’s heart. But the point is, we’ve gotta be able to look inward and say what was out there that we might’ve been able to read differently. I do think we can read things a little differently, and I think the client wasn’t as well organized as we believed. They were putting two different kinds of collectors together. One of them was a very traditional folk art collector and the other one was much more interested in contemporary art. They were actually very different kinds of people, but they were absorbed under the collective rubric ‘Folk Art’. There simply wasn’t the financial support on their side or the unification of that vision from our side. I think we made a mistake, because we were going in stronger than they were. And the problem is that if you’re too strong for your client, then your will can be your downfall. I think Paul Rudolph (1918-1997) was a perfect example of that: he had the whole thing under control. That’s both the strength and the weakness of his buildings. We see this time and time again where the building survived his vision, but it easily could not have survived.
HA: So in a way, the strong values you imparted upon that building were both its strength and its weakness?
TW: They always are. And all the values are the strength and weakness of the problem. They actually wanted to have one floor for the conservative stuff and another for the more outsider art, with a temporary gallery that was in between. We said it should all should be mixed together, which would give them an extra floor. So we did two things we thought were useful for the collectors and for the budget. But it was very hard to work out curatorially, and everyone both loved it and felt slightly dissatisfied in the end. If the client isn’t strong enough, your voice can convince the client to do things that maybe they’re not up to.
So in a way, embedded in the solution was a description of the problem. So that’s why if you really look deeply at it, it was doomed, and MoMA was convinced that they never wanted it anyway. I don’t regret what we did: I just take responsibility for it.
I wish the Folk Art Museum was listed and saved, but what good would it be unless it was loved?
BT: With the Folk Art Museum, its strength and its weakness was its desire to express a character. In its desire to express the idea of art made directly from the hand, it was a very particular building. So for me its strength is that it was one with the client. But of course its weakness was its space to show contemporary art, which is where the financial support comes from. And that asks for a not very particular kind of building: it asks for a much more neutral kind of space.
TW: This problem with values has also come up with the Presidential Center
project where we have a requirement to park four hundred and fifty cars on the site. Why should we have to park so many cars? Surely we believe in public transportation, and what will happen to cars in the future, and the broader values that we believe in. On the other hand, we felt that it was critical to people from suburban Chicago who would drive there in the cold weather to be able to park nearby. It’s a big challenge, a very big challenge, when you don’t believe in all the parts of the brief but you believe in the client. That makes architecture really interesting: we want the architecture to evolve as a relationship between the client, the site and the material, which slows things down and tangles them up. But I think it’s important to slow this world down because it was going so goddamn fast.
HA: You used the word responsibility, and I wonder how architects can responsibly advocate for the permanence of the built environment. How can we develop the positive agency that people feel when they take care of buildings? Should we engage with political intervention, or fold it into the design process? Or can a building itself have qualities that attract people enough to look after it?
BT: There’s a zoomed in view of responsibility once you’re already involved in a project. For example, there’s the responsibility to a client to advocate for a better material strategy or a more expensive, better-performing window system. But, there’s a form of responsibility that’s a little bit further away, which I think has to do with our broader environment. There’s the responsibility of whether something new should actually be built at all.
Our studio project is based on the renovation of a very modest building. The easiest thing would be to tear it down and put something else in its place. But as we think about how we will continue to live in the world, our responsibility extends to what already exists.
TW: Responsibility is making sure that you are pushing things enough, but also in the end, taking responsibility for your actions when they actually occur. That’s really tough. When you’re younger, it’s a little more so and also it gets tough when you’re older.
Here’s a very dumb aspect of responsibilities: I’m incredibly happy if I have a client that I can talk to about who fixes and cleans the building, because if I really know how he or she has to clean it, I will make decisions that are going to at least last longer than the ones that I would have made before and it will be less of a pain in the ass for everyone. Billy and I have spent so much time discussing the most mundane spaces, like bathrooms and fighting it out and saying, you’ve got to come into this bathroom: ‘come check out the men’s room!’
BT: As somebody else said, if you’ve ever had a bad experience in a public bathroom, it lessens the architecture, because most people aren’t even appreciative of the architecture. They’re thinking about their actual experience.
SY: Perhaps the other side of responsibility is the authority to make decisions. There’s a perception among young architects that we’re losing authority over projects: do you think there’s a mismatch between the responsibility we want to take and the authority that we have?
BT: When you’re in school, you think that your job as an architect is to enforce the purity of the vision that you’ve designed. But your job as an architect in the field is to understand that your intentions as a designer must align with those of the person who’s constructing the building and the client. So the idea of authority is not vested in one person. Authority comes from the collaboration of all the people involved in a project, so it is not a singular authority. It’s a collective authority, which has more resonance than the power you wield as a single person.
TW: It isn’t just that you need to trust and believe in yourself, because if it’s only on your shoulders, you will be crushed. And if it’s not on your shoulders, and it feels like you don’t have any authority at all, you’re defeated. So it has to be a strong sense of shared authority with the client and any other consultant,anywhere, anytime. You’ve got to take responsibility for your end of any relationship.
It’s also a continuation of a myth of singular authorship, which is a very difficult and impossible thing to achieve. Building is a parallel process: it’s not entirely collaborative and it’s not totally individual.
To work out what your own values are takes time: it doesn’t come right away. It can come from loss and pain, or life in general. Just don’t expect answers when you’re not ready.