|Architecture, Designer, Interviews|
”The most important design elements? Listening, curiosity, optimism.”
It’s my pleasure to welcome architect Billie Tsien of the husband-and-wife architectural firm in New York Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Her recent work with Tod Williams includes a new museum for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, a performing and visual arts center at the University in Chicago, the Asia Society headquarters in Hong Kong, an information technology campus in Mumbai, India. Monumental buildings, composed of powerful materials used with great sensitivity. Numerous prizes, including multiple recognitions from the AIA, Brunner Award and Chrysler Award for Design Innovation. Billie Tsien sees “architecture as an act of profound optimism. Its foundation lies in believing that it is possible to make places on the earth that can give a sense of grace to life — and in believing that that matters.”
The Desert House, Arizona, photo: Michael Moran
What was the moment when you knew you would be an architect?
Actually I think that was never really a crystallized moment in time. I know that there were a lot of moments when I felt I didn’t want to be an architect. After the neat tied up bundles of projects in school, it was at first discouraging to realize that on real projects, as soon as you tie up a knot, another bunch of strings have become untied. After about 5 or 6 years of practice – I think it coincided with the birth of our son, I realized that life never stays tied up in neat bundles. And in so many obvious ways my life and work are intertwined. Once I accepted that life was that way – I could accept that practice was that way and I believed finally that I would remain an architect.
Is there something that connects all your projects?
I think there are several aspects that connect our work. Our buildings are built well. They are meant to last one hundred years. We use heavy materials – concrete and stone and balance that with wood, textiles, tile and other details that speak to the hand. We are as interested in the space between buildings as we are in the buildings themselves. We are interested in the landscape and grounding our buildings in the topography. We are not object makers. We design from the inside out. We do not do commercial work.
Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona, photo: Bill Timmerman
Looking back at your first project what design knowledge do you wish you had back then?
How to be practical and how to transcend it.
What have been the rewards of practicing architecture?
Watching people use the spaces we have designed.
photos: Tom Rossiter, Jeremy Bittermann
What do you love to do when you are not designing?
I read fiction.
Your favorite books?
Speak Memory – Vladimir Nabokov, almost anything by MFK Fisher, Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf, Death Comes to the Archbishop – Willa Cather. Too many to name…
Who are your favorite artists?
Bronzino – for the faces and the clothes, Lotto for the hidden stories, Morandi for fragility, Twombly for ecstasy, a New Zealand artist Colin McCahon for struggle. Too many to name…
Further Lane House, photo: Jeremy Bittermann
What does success mean to you?
Having people love the places we make.
What’s your advice to upcoming architects?
Love what you do.
My signature question – what are the most important design elements?
Listening, curiosity, optimism.