Tod Williams and Billie Tsien: Made to Last
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.
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.
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.