By the Horns
- World-renowned architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are united in vision and practice—in their lives together and in their work—a strong foundation for their partnership and buildings.
- Carmen Maria Machado is self-assured and outspoken, turning a mirror not only on herself but on society’s unchallenged biases to create immersive fiction.
Carmen Maria Machado is an award-winning writer whose short stories defy easy categorization, spanning science fiction, gothic horror, erotica, fantasy, and literary fiction.
Raised in Allentown, PA, Machado began writing fiction while studying journalism at American University in Washington, DC, and earned an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has been published in Granta, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeneys, and elsewhere. Her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties (2017) was nominated for a National Book Award and won the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.
Machado is also a frequent contributor of cultural commentary to The New Yorker. Her memoir In the Dream House, about an abusive lesbian relationship, was shortlisted for the 2021 Folio Prize. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are the husband-wife partners of a premiere architectural firm. They have received over two dozen awards from the American Institute of Architects, including the 2013 Firm of the Year Award. In 2013, they were both awarded a National Medal of Arts from President Obama.
Williams was born in 1943 in Detroit, and studied architecture at Princeton University. Billie Tsien was born in 1949 in Ithaca, NY, and studied fine arts at Yale and architecture at UCLA. They began working together in 1977 and founded Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in 1986.
The firm has completed over forty buildings in six countries, including the Phoenix Art Museum (completed 1996), the Asia Society Hong Kong Center (completed 2012), the American Folk Art Museum in New York (completed 2001), the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (completed 2012), and the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City (begun 2018). They are lead architects for the Barack Obama presidential library.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, By the Horns. World renowned architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are united in vision and practice in their lives together and in their work. It’s a strong foundation for their partnership and their buildings.
Tod Williams: The more important thing is actually to believe in partnership, to believe that you’re whole, to know that you’re whole only through the other person, and also through yourself.
Billie Tsien: We both need what the other person gives, but we also have some aspect of that other person inside us. So we find the opposite, and we find, also, ourselves in each other.
Writer Carmen Maria Machado uses her short stories to confront society’s unchallenged biases with, as Tori Marchiony reports, a tendency towards the dark side.
Carmen Maria Machado: And so I feel like that’s just the way that my brain works. I don’t know why. I mean, I think it’s from reading, and just being a weird kinda goth kid, and thinking about death a lot, and thinking about the way the world is kind of a nightmare.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Billie Tsien and Tod Williams have been partners in life and in architecture for more than three decades. They’ve co-created more than 40 structures in six countries, many of them homes for art, culture, education. Among Williams’ and Tsien’s high-profile creations, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, where they were charged with precisely recreating historic galleries in a brand new building, a new atrium at New York’s Lincoln Center with a performance space hosting free public events, the US Embassy in Mexico City. And despite having been together almost constantly for so long, they still crave each other’s company.
Tod Williams: At four o’clock in the morning, I want to talk to Billie. And I don’t talk to her at four o’clock till six. So that’s as good as I can do.
Billie Tsien: And then it’s bottled up. At six o’clock in the morning, it’s just like ah, I don’t want to talk about this.
Tod Williams: And she then doesn’t want to talk, but she puts up with me.
Though of profoundly different temperaments, Williams and Tsien share a core set of values, including the belief that architecture is first and foremost an act of service.
Billie Tsien: I remember when I was in architecture school, and it was late at night, and we were all working in the studio, and one of our instructors came in and clearly had a bad day, and he was drunk. And so he walks into the middle of the studio, and he says, “I just want you all to know, architecture is a dirty service profession.” And then he turned around and walked out. And as students, we were just, we didn’t even know what that meant. You know, we were sort of shocked, but it was clear that, you know, he thought this was a terrible thing, and he felt, somehow or other, whatever his ideas were, were being crushed in the name of, you know, trying to, of a bad client. That never left me ’cause it was so strange, and then over the years, you start out thinking that the most important thing is, “I drew this.” But then, over time, and it’s been a long time, you start to realize that, first of all, if all it is is, “I drew this,” then it never happens. That architecture happens as a result of many, many people, and it all begins with the need and the client. And so, our job is to serve, and if you accept that as your base, I think that you can really, for us, that’s how our best work comes out. I think, if you fight it, then you end up, you know, drunk in the middle of the night, feeling angry.
AJC: Do people hire the two of you because of how your buildings look, or because of the values that they contain?
Tod Williams: Well, it has to be the values. I don’t, because anyway, I don’t know what the buildings look like. They look different, each one. They’re somehow the same, that value should be embedded in them, but no, they have to hire us because of us. The exciting thing is losing myself in a relationship with, let’s say, you. Or, in the case of the Barnes, with the case of the problematic of the building, with Dr. Barnes, with Laura Barnes, with the people who hated it. The docents, with the contractor, with the material. It’s just all, you’re just trying to find yourself with the help of them.
In a time when buildings are increasingly disposable, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien design for the ages, using durable materials, but also taking care to consider internal, experiential details, like the way light moves through space. But for as much thought as Williams and Tsien put into their buildings, they seem less concerned with anything resembling concrete ambition.
Billie Tsien: Neither Tod nor I have ever had a strategy or a sense about a career. Tod, because he actually has no priorities. A cabinet doorknob is as important as a building. They all receive the same passion. So this sense of somehow choosing one thing over another in order to get someplace, in order to achieve something, in order to be, quote, successful, I think he just attacks everything like this. And I kind of say, I’m in a weird way more like my Chinese birth symbol, not that I really believe in that, but mine is like an oxen. And I feel like it really pretty much has never occurred to me to look up and say, “I’m going there.” Mostly, I’m looking at my feet, or I guess my hoof, and I’m going, “Hoof, hoof, hoof, hoof,” and I’m just moving forward. I’m incredibly steady, nothing will stop me. So that’s saying there’s a kind of ambition and also stubbornness that we have, both Tod and I, that things won’t stop us. But it’s not because we’re looking there. It’s more because whatever is happening here has our full attention.
Indeed, when the pair first met in 1977, they never imagined the adventure life had in store. He was a 34-year-old divorcee looking for a competent assistant for his nascent architecture firm. The newcomer’s most important job would be to create drawings for presentations, a task perfectly suited to one 28-year-old recent UCLA Architecture grad.
Tod Williams: So I hired her. Good portfolio, quiet, calm. And yeah, and she was very pretty, but I was seeing other people, and I wasn’t interested.
Billie Tsien: Well, when I first started working in the studio, Tod had been divorced for a number of years, and he seemed to have all these various girlfriends kind of overlapping, and as the new person in the office, I would often pick up the phone, and it was often, you know, some young woman who thought she was in a relationship with Tod. And it was just like, I felt like the control tower at LaGuardia. You know, it’s like, “Well, he’s not in right now, but why don’t you call back later?” And I was thinking, you know, “he’s a committed architect, and a really good designer, but probably an—,” no, but we became friends. Because, you know, I saw him when he was being what I felt was foolish, and I also saw him when he was being quite wonderful. And that’s kind of what friendship is, when you are, when you like a person in their ups and their downs. That’s why everything.
Tod Williams: Okay, well, I’d like to, Billie never criticizes anything, but you know when she doesn’t feel good about it, doesn’t, just sort of feels, she doesn’t actually ever have to say no. You know. You know. And when she values something, and when she doesn’t. Whereas I’m yelling and screaming about what’s right and wrong in the world, she doesn’t say anything. It’s sort of inscrutable. It’s like, okay, that’s a gift. I mean, I’m just sort of watching someone accept me for who I am, but also, in a way, somehow, somehow changing me.
It took about nine months for the couple to begin dating. They married four years later in 1983, had their son, Kai, shortly after. In 1986, they launched their eponymous firm. They’ve since steadily built their reputation as one of the most remarkable partnerships in architecture. The duo’s latest challenge, the Barack Obama Presidential Library, an understated name for this dynamic 19-acre campus on Chicago’s South Side.
Billie Tsien: There are classrooms, there are a productive garden, there’s a teaching kitchen, there are places where you’ll learn to make podcasts, there’s an auditorium, that are all geared towards teaching. And then, there’s also, of course, a kind of more symbolic tower element, which will be inscribed with words from perhaps his speeches, from other people’s speeches. It’s about stories. It’s a tower of stories, because he’s a man who cared very much, and cares very much, about words.
Billie Tsien: He has never been interested in this idea of a monument. At the same time, we realized that we, in a certain way, have to also respond to a larger audience. People who want to make a journey to see something that they believe is a symbol of the importance of his presidency. We just feel responsible to now, both feel responsible to 500 years from now, hopefully we will still be existing 500 years from now as a people, but to say, “We’re marking something here, and it is truly, truly significant.”
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have achieved something many aspire to, but few realize. A harmonious, productive partnership.
Tod Williams: But the more important thing is actually to, to actually believe in partnership, to believe that you’re whole, to know that you’re whole only through the other person, and also through yourself. That’s it.
Billie Tsien: We both need what the other person gives, but we also have some aspect of that other person inside us. So we find the opposite, and we find, also, ourselves in each other.
Carmen Maria Machado doesn’t accept conventional narratives, nor does she create them. She has an unnerving talent for weaving the disturbing, the provocative, the horrifying, into her stories. But, she says, it’s all in good fun.
Carmen Maria Machado: It’s like playing, you know? It gives me the same sensation as when I was a kid and I was playing with a dollhouse, you know? And so, it’s that sort of same sense of creative control, and sort of like generating a world and generating characters, and generating conflict, and creating this space, and doing so to reflect something that’s inside of me. I actually think it’s really fun.
Even as a child, Carmen’s play wasn’t like most other little girls. She’s always had a distinctly macabre sensibility. She and a friend liked to pretend they were doctors, saving their dolls, who were twin sisters, from mysterious, deadly illnesses. Now, as an adult, Machado still has the tendency to look for the dark side in things.
Machado: Whenever we drive past that billboard, out on one of the highways where it’s the Chick-fil-A, and it’s the cow that’s painting, and it says, “Eat Mor Chikin,” and I always say to my wife, “Oh my God, the cow doesn’t want to die.” And so he’s, this barely literate cow is trying desperately to paint a sign to encourage humans to kill and eat another kind of animal to spare their lives. That’s so dark! Who came up with that advertising concept? And so, I feel like that’s just the way that my brain works. I don’t know why. I mean, I think it’s from reading, and just being a weird kinda goth kid, and thinking about death a lot, and thinking about the way the world is kind of a nightmare. A world that I actually do mostly enjoy living in, you know, but yeah, and I feel like that just comes through in my work, and I think that sort of eeriness, even when the material isn’t explicitly, at that moment, horror, there’s still this sense of unease.
Take, for example, “Difficult at Parties,” a story from Machado’s National Book Award-nominated debut collection. The narrator and her boyfriend, Paul, approach a housewarming party for some of his friends, but her PTSD makes even a mild encounter with good-natured strangers pulse with menace.
(Excerpt from Difficult at Parties):
We pull up next to a row of parked cars, in front of a renovated turn-of-the-century farmhouse. ‘It looks so homey,’ says Paul, stepping out and rubbing his gloveless hands together. The windows are draped with gauzy curtains and a creamy honey color throbs from within. The house looks like it’s on fire. The hosts open the door. They are beautiful and have gleaming teeth. I have seen this before. I have not seen them before.
Machado doesn’t always cause unease to generate fear. She often provokes discomfort to prove some larger point about society. Among her favorite topics to tangle with, sex. Machado is a fierce proponent of the casual sex scene. She believes that her characters work hard, and therefore deserve a little roll in the hay.
Machado: We literally are our bodies. We live in our bodies. Our bodies are the source of pain and pleasure, and eventually, and our birth, and eventually, our death, right? And sexuality in some form, whatever it is, is an essential part of the human experience. And if you think about it that way, it’s like why wouldn’t you write about sex in the same way that you would write about eating, you know? It’s characters doing things that bring them close to other people or push them away from other people, or this sort of moment with themselves, or whatever it is. And if you think about it that way, it’s just like, it’s literally as important a part of craft as any other sort of element of the human experience.
Carmen Maria Machado understands that pleasure is as essential to life as pain is to a good story, so she advocates for many ideas that push against received wisdom. In an essay for Guernica magazine, “The Trash Heap Has Spoken,” she imagines a society where fatness is seen as a virtue instead of a sin, while exploring the many ways that large bodies are diminished in America. Along the way, she recalls a telling anecdote from the biography of Shirley Jackson, her favorite horror and mystery writer.
Machado: And that drives me bananas because I’m like, “No, she’s a genius and she’s fat,” and those two things are not, they don’t exist in opposition to each other. Like it’s, people think that because we’ve grown up, I mean, if you look at the sort of cultural representations of fat people, they’re bumbling, they’re stupid, they’re laughable. You know, there’s just this very, there’s this ease about the way we demean fat bodies.
AJC: Do you refer to yourself as fat?
Machado: I do, yes.
AJC: So what does society think that that means, and what do you think that that means?
Machado: There’s this interesting thing that happens, and I think most people who are fat have experienced this, where if you say that you’re fat, which to me is as simple as the fact of saying I have brown hair or I have brown eyes, people will be like, “No, you’re not. No, no, no, don’t worry. You’re not, don’t worry.” Or they have other words that they like to use. You know, those like, “No, you’re voluptuous,” or, “You’re this, you’re that.” And to me, that’s not interesting, because what it sort of ties up what is, I think, a fairly neutral descriptor about a person’s body. It’s the same way you would say thin, it’s the same way you would say you have blonde hair. You just, it’s just a thing you say, right? It’s just a way of describing a person’s body, and there shouldn’t be any judgment associated with it.
But there is, in truth, a whole lot of judgment associated with fatness. In our culture, a thin body is assumed to be healthy and hardworking. A fat body, on the other hand, is seen as lazy, indulgent, in constant danger of disease. Neither is an absolute truth. But studies have shown that even medical professionals stereotype their patients in this way, and it can lead to worse care. Machado says she’s experienced this firsthand.
Machado: So years ago, I had swine flu when I lived in California. I got really sick, I was out for two weeks. It was really, really bad. But after the swine flu was over, which had devastated me and devastated also the entire office that I worked at, I had this rasp in my chest that was leftover from the sickness, and it wouldn’t go away, and I was like, “I need to go to the doctor and get an inhaler or something,” ’cause I can just feel this, it’s still kinda lingering, you know, right here. And I had a coworker who was this tiny, petite woman, and we both went to the same doctor, we both had the same health insurance, and she also had the same rasp. She was like, “Oh, I know, I got the same thing, it’s really bad,” ’cause she had also gotten the swine flu. And we’d both went to the doctor on two separate days, and I went in, and the doctor said, “Well, have you thought about losing weight?” And I said, “I don’t normally breathe like this. I just got, I was just ravaged by swine flu,” I had a fever of like 102, I was extremely ill for a very long time, “and now I have this symptom that’s lingering from it. Is there anything you can give me?” And then he just kept talking about weight loss and talking about how I needed to lose weight, and maybe I wasn’t breathing right ’cause I was too fat, and I was like, it was this fight, it was a fight. Eventually, they gave me an inhaler, and that was it. My coworker went in the next day, walked in, got an inhaler in five minutes, and walked out. They didn’t question it for one second. And that kind of fatphobia, the way that we focus on the fat body in this way also kills people, right? So years ago, there was a girl. I read this story about a young girl who was slightly overweight, and they diagnosed her with the wrong kind of diabetes. Like they, it’s like, they diagnosed her with the kind that they thought she had because of her body, and they never bothered testing, and she died. She straight-up died. Fatphobia kills people.
But in Machado’s world, the fat don’t just live, they rule.
I have an intermittent daydream in which I’m a queen straight out of an epic fantasy novel. I am draped in red silk and sit in a large baroque throne, crowned with a grandiose headdress, dripping gemstones that tick, tick, tick like Yahtzee dice when I turn my head. My feet rest on snoozing bears. I am so fat, I can only leave the room on a palanquin borne aloft by 20 men. I am so fat, it takes the air out of the room. I am so fat, no advisor tells me no. I am so fat, would-be conquerors flee the room in fear. I am so fat that members of their court do their best to look like me by eating onions cooked in lard, but none can match my sweeping vista, my strength, my power. I am so fat, I can take as many lovers as I please. I am so fat that fatness becomes culturally inextricable from a firm, wise, no-nonsense attitude. I am so fat, the citizens who come before me for advice or assistance feel safe in proximity to my orbit, and afterward, they go home to their families and tell their children that I am even larger and more exquisite in person. I am so fat, their daughters shove pillows under their clothes during play and say, “I’m the queen,” and then argue about how many monarchs are allowed during their game.
Carmen Maria Machado loves to press on our collective bruises. She takes on our culture’s implicit biases and helps us to rethink the things we’re often afraid to even discuss in polite society. All this with a rare combination of emotional honesty and intellectual ferocity. Long may the trash heap speak.