Capturing the Spirit of Place: BillieTsien and Tod Williams

Capturing the Spirit of Place: BillieTsien and Tod Williams

This year’s Senior Loeb Scholars Tod Williams and Billie Tsien spoke at the GSD recently, where they were warmly introduced by long-time friend and Loeb Fellowship curator James Stockard.

Tsien and Williams first began working together in 1977 and later established their New York City-based architectural practice in 1986. Reflecting on the collaborative nature of their husband-and-wife partnership, Williams said, "We design together. By the time a building is finished, even we can’t remember whose ideas were whose.”

Attention to detail, particularly in material selection, is deeply embedded in their design practice. "What we really do is go to places where people make things and understand what they’re doing and see what we can do with what they know, and that’s much easier than trying to invent something from scratch,” says Tsien.

Through their construction of spaces they aim to respect the dignity of a site and its multiple connections. "We’re sharing the responsibility of developing a project not only with the client but with the site and the program,” says Williams.

The redesign of the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, completed in 2012, is the subject of their most recent book, The Architecture of the Barnes Foundation. Tsien and William’s idea for the new space was to create both a gallery within a garden and a garden within a gallery.

Barnes Foundation collection

Originally housed in a Paul Philippe Cret-designed gallery surrounded by a 12-acre arboretum in Merion, Pennsylvania, the Barnes Foundation art collection’s move to downtown Philadelphia was intensely controversial. As stipulated by the foundation’s indenture of trust, the works making up this singular collection of art had to be kept "in exactly the places they are.”

"We knew that we had to deal with the galleries as they were,” says Tsien. The couple set themselves to understand the spirit of the original site and then make it better so that everything would feel the same despite being different. The relocation of the Barnes collection, in essence, aims to recreate the viewer’s memory.

Barnes Foundation

The building Williams and Tsien designed, set in a public garden, honors the Merion facility, as well as the commitment of founder Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) to the visual interplay between art and nature. The galleries replicate the scale and idiosyncratic presentation of pieces at the original site. Moreover, visitors can look right into the garden from the galleries that embrace it.

On the horizon, Tsien and Williams are working on Lakeside Center, which features two new multi-functional skating rinks for Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. During the icy part of the year, one rink will be used for figure skating and the other for hockey, and in the warmer months, the space will serve as a roller-skating rink and water-play area. Viewed within its larger site, the project is in conversation with the original Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux park plan, seeking to capture an Olmsted-Vaux beauty. "It’s really going to be about viewing the landscape,” says Williams. 

Photos of the Barnes Foundation by Michael Moran

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