Billie Tsien on creating experiences that are bigger than the buildings

STIR @ Women in Design 2020+:The New York-based architect shares her views on the state of the architecture and suggest what architects today should focus on.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Feb 27, 2020

Billie Tsien believes the design of the buildings should allow people to inhabit them, and as architects they need to listen to the community using it. Tsien is an American architect who started her practice Tod Williams Bille Tsien Architects (TWBTA) in 1977. In the last 43 years, her award-winning practice has been recognised for various projects including Andlinger Center for Energy & the Environment, Asia Society Hong Kong Center, the Barnes Foundation, the American Folk Art Museum, New York, and Banyan Park Campus of Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai.

Currently, Tsien is designing the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago along with her husband Tod. Earlier this year, she was in India to participate in the Women in Design 2020+. A three-day conference curated by the HECAR Foundation, it was held at Nehru Centre in Mumbai, India, from January 8-10. The event hosted over 35 women designers, architects, artists, directors, political and social leaders to speak about their life, work and inspirations. 

Here, the septuagenarian architect speaks with STIR about her practice based in midtown Manhattan in New York, the state of architecture in India and the US, and shares her learnings from her projects in the last four decades.

  • The Obama Presidential Center, Chicago  |Billie Tsien | Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | STIRworld
    The Obama Presidential Center, Chicago Image Credit: Courtesy of the Obama Foundation

Excerpts from the interview...

Meghna Mehta (MM): It was a wonderful presentation at the conference. Please tell us more about your practice.

Billie Tsien (BT): When we started to work in New York City, we really weren't given jobs that were designing buildings. In New York, so much of the work was designing interiors. So, we were doing - like all young architects - kitchens, bathrooms, maybe a loft renovation, apartments, etc. But what it really taught us was the importance of the relationship between the client and the scale. Questions like, how far is far enough to be sitting apart from me (measuring the distance between us with her palms), like, is this too close? That attention to how people relate to each other is really the way we deal with all our architecture. I think how one starts really influences the continuity of their practice. All of our projects are designed from the inside out and they really begin with people. Even if we are working on larger projects, bigger buildings, I never start from the outside and drawing a building, we are always starting from the micro details.

In that way, I think our buildings are much more about experience than they are about the object of the building, of not looking at it from the outside, but from the inside. – Billie Tsien

MM: What you are saying is an inside to outside approach, the concentric.

BT: Yeah, exactly! It is very concentric. And Tod always says, “Let's design the building without windows,” and in a way because concentric is moving from inside to out, you don't figure out where the windows are going to be until you figure out where the people are going to be.

The Obama Presidential Center represents a historic opportunity to build a world-class museum and public gathering space that celebrates our nation’s first African American President and First Lady |Billie Tsien | Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | STIR
The Obama Presidential Center represents a historic opportunity to build a world-class museum and public gathering space that celebrates our nation’s first African American President and First Lady Image Credit: Courtesy of the Obama Foundation

MM: I think that is the kind of approach that modernism also saw during the time that you may have set up your practice and there was a lot of influence also of the Bauhaus. Would you say your practice follows modernism?

BT: The idea is to design simple spaces that allow people to inhabit them. I talked about our building being containers for life, and I think in many ways the early Bauhaus modernist tendencies were to try to make reduced beautiful spaces so that people could live their lives there, rather by having a dining room here or a kitchen there, and they used to follow a much more open and free plan.

Though one of the things that is different for us from modernism is our interest in materials, as modernism, for the most part, tried to reduce the number of materials as everything was always simple and white.

We appreciate values of warmth and coolness. Coolness is about making the space very pure, while warmth is the thing that makes you want to sit down and lean against something. It feels nice, looks beautiful. And this sensuous beauty that brings the feeling of texture, richness in colour is also very important to us. That, I believe, is an offset from the general tone of modernism.

MM: What do you think are the effects of globalisation on architecture?

BT: It is also about recognising that life is quite complicated. For example, now all of these glass buildings that are proliferating all over the world and also in the United States. Everybody thinks glass creates openness, but it is a very heavy material. Hence, we have become more aware of how our decisions are affecting global warming and the kind of light that is let in into the building. I am not saying that buildings should look like old buildings, but we should look at their values, in the way ‘mass’ was used to keep things cool in summertime, roof extending over and all these elements did was not evolve from style. It was done understanding how people would use the space.

Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth |Billie Tsien | Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | STIRworld
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth Image Credit: Michael Moran

MM: We can also see the impact of globalisation in India where there is no reference to the context the buildings lie in. We all are under this pressure to become global, we all want to make a place in this world.

BT: That's a very interesting question. Are you trying to be traditional or trying to be global? I think the bigger question is, are you particular to where you are? And so, in that way you are not trying to be there, set yourself into a box that has already been made.

India is the only place in the world that I have seen where many things done by hand are less expensive than things done by machines. That says a lot about the human interface; this can easily be achieved inside of India and is something which is a huge resource outside of India. - Billie Tsien

MM: This is something that many architects in India are fighting for, to preserve our craftsmanship and traditional techniques.

BT: It is wonderful to see that effort being put by the younger architects because the older generations, may be, were not interested.

Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth- Unlike traditional art institutions, the Hood is a teaching museum, dedicated to cultivating direct engagement with its visitors and works of art.  |Billie Tsien | Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | STIRworld
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth- Unlike traditional art institutions, the Hood is a teaching museum, dedicated to cultivating direct engagement with its visitors and works of art. Image Credit: Michael Moran

MM: Yes! Having lived in the USA, what would you say is happening to the state of architecture in today’s time? What kind of changes would have affected the socio-political scenario?

BT: I think in terms of architecture, in the United States, the whole country is in a kind of state of confusion. Clearly, you have your own issues and we have huge political issues and it is who are we and what is our actual identity? For better or worse, one thought that as an American citizen we stood for certain things and those things are going away. That's also true about the architecture.

Because I am from New York, we are looking at these huge developers, there's one called the Hudson Yards and people are questioning, ‘What is the meaning of that in the world today? What does that do to the country, what does it take away?’
Hudson Yards development in New York |Billie Tsien | Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | STIRworld
Hudson Yards development in New York Image Credit: Wikimedia commons

Changing the streetscape on the West side, which used to be four storey buildings and small shops that people there used to use. However, now there is a wall of glass that goes up a hundred floors straight down to the ground, gigantic lobbies with nobody inside. It also turns its back on the rest of the city, saying, ‘we don't actually want you. This is not really public. This is our place. You are actually not welcome. You can come in and buy and you can eat, but don't try to sit down and don't try and have a cup of coffee in this courtyard.’ It has then led to the cost of an apartment on the Highline now reaching up to $75 million. What does that mean?

Everybody in the US is starting to question the same thing. ‘Wait a minute, maybe this is not what we are. Maybe this is not what they want to do.’

MM: I read a lot of articles that criticise the entire development of Hudson Yards. But what does it do to the streetscape?

BT: Nothing! This is about destroying streetscape and it's about life in New York, which is explored best by walking. Don't have a car, go places and see people and catch their eye. There's nothing in going into a giant mall.

Hood Art Museum project restores the old building and adds an annex |Billie Tsien | Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | STIRworld
Hood Art Museum project restores the old building and adds an annex Image Credit: Michael Moran

MM: I found one of your projects, the Hood Art Museum, very interesting. Tell us more about it.

BT: It was an addition to a building that was actually built by my teacher. We restored that building and added a new space. What I think is important now, is how we use and reinvigorate buildings that are existing and how can we make them new? How can we make them more usable without tearing down and starting from scratch? And I think that's going to be more and more important as time goes on. I certainly understand when I was in architecture school, I didn't want to restore or add to an existing building. That’s not fun. You want to put your mark on it.

The Museum building anchors the northern end of the plaza, the Forum building wraps its east side, and a new branch of the Chicago Public Library frames its southern end. |Billie Tsien | Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | STIRworld
The Obama Presidential Center in Chicago - The Museum building anchors the northern end of the plaza, the Forum building wraps its east side, and a new branch of the Chicago Public Library frames its southern end. Image Credit: The Obama Foundation
The idea of a personal statement does not matter. Our time in the world is such a flash that it does not matter. What matters more is how are you contributing to the world. - Billie Tsien

MM: You are setting a legacy in a way where we see your work and get inspired. At the same time we also see somebody like Daniel Libeskind with the Military History Museum, making an entirely different statement about architecture against a historic background.

BT: I am sorry but that was from another time. A time when one said one has to be heroic and it is only about your mark and about nothing else. I think that time has passed, and it is not only about stylistic reasons, I am talking about human reasons, we are facing such huge challenges right now.

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About Author

Meghna Mehta

Meghna Mehta

An architect by education and a journalist by passion, Mehta pursued a crossroad between her two interests. Having completed an M.Arch from CEPT University in Ahmedabad, she has worked in the field of architectural journalism for over 5 years. Besides content generation for STIR, she continues to teach in architectural schools in Mumbai.

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