Tod Williams and Billie Tsien: Interiority

"We are 'thing' people," said Billie Tsien, narrating a sequence of eclectic objects in last Tuesday's GSD lecture presented with partner Tod Williams. Together they lead their eponymous NYC architecture studio and are John C. Portman design critics at the GSD. Tsien lingered over the image of a sinuous stair rail tapering from seasoned wood to old ivory, a transition perceptible by touch in the subtle coolness of the otherwise seamlessly smooth surface. "Things give us comfort in the world," added Williams.

Negative space–space as absence as a well as containment–is also at stake in their design, Williams continues, presenting Michael Heizer's deep, geometric shaped cavities in North, East, South, West, 1966/2002, a site-specific installation recreated for the Dia:Beacon gallery. The evocative voids recall pre-modern step wells Williams and Tsien visited on a research trek to India. Even as these once freshwater reservoirs run dry, the deep excavations nonetheless provide cool comfort in the arid Indian heat– "a cool space in a hot place," said Williams.

The couple relates this signature alertness to the possibilities of space, both positive and negative, to their residence from 1972 to 2008 in a small apartment in the legendary Carnegie Hall Studios in mid-town Manhattan, home to artists across disciplines of music, visual arts, dance, and architecture. "There were once 160 studios for working artists," Williams lamented, "Now there are none." The apartment was very small, but a large overhead skylight filled the intimate space with light, creating an interiority that was both generous and secure.

Tsien and Williams presented four recent projects: the renovation and expansion of Savidge Library at McDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire; the Kim and Tritton residence halls of Haverford College; LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park, Brooklyn; and Tata Consultancy Services technology campus in Mumbai. While each is distinct in program and patronage, the work as a whole is unified by an intimate dialogue with site. Circulation is channeled like riverbeds, and building elevations profile the surrounding landscape, deftly serving multiple functions: walls as retaining walls, rooftop green space concealing underground buildings, and outdoor means of access and egress freeing interiors of stairs and elevators.

The renovation and expansion of Savidge Library transformed McDowell Colony's one-room facility, dating from the 1920s, into a multi-use space with eight new desks and smaller areas for writing, reading, and resting. There is a flexible exhibition gallery and archive for the Colony's growing digital collection to better accommodate the needs and practices of the 26-artist, year-round resident community. The iconic emblem of the 4500 square foot addition is an impressively scaled outdoor fireplace and orthogonal chimney, reminiscent of the massive central chimneys that heated 17th century New England houses. Within the 450 acres of woodlands and fields, the towering chimney and hearth serve as a year-round social locus, around which residents cluster Adirondack chairs for warmth and companionship in the deep New Hampshire winter.

The Kim and Tritton residence halls and Tata Consultancy Services campus, while differing in program and context, demonstrate the aesthetic continuity of the TWBTA studio. Both projects actively engage the landscape, with circulation paths incised below grade and existing plantings preserved to meld the new construction visually and functionally with the sites. The challenge Tsien and Williams set for the Haverford dormitories was "making the ordinary extraordinary," Tsien explained, reflecting the understated probity of the College's Quaker origins. Two one-story buildings were set into a landscaped berm, with an arboretum, Williams said, "functioning as the living room." The 160 dorm rooms were designed to accommodate multiple configurations of purpose-built furniture. Wall treatments with mid-century-style Heath tiles and felt offered "a richness to the ordinary."

A project that developed over more than twelve years, the new TCS campus buildings are by intention "less than the land. Nothing is more than three stories tall; the land rises." Their goal was to achieve "a sense of place in the land." Again, circulation channels are cut into the ground. Working with a local landscape architect, Tsien and Williams incorporated existing trees into the design. Materials include reclaimed teak and stone, with the building affording cooling shade while allowing natural light. This is achieved in part by a central oculus clad in luminous China tile, the manufacture of which is a living tradition practiced by local women. Keeping the building open but dry proved a challenge, especially during the monsoon season.

The acclaimed LeFrak Center in Prospect Park restored 26 acres of Olmsted-Vaux designed landscape while concealing two 30 thousand square foot recreation facilities underground, with ice skating at grade, including one regulation-size hockey rink. The sheltering canopy of the rink is an engineering tour de force, cantilevered over stone-clad steel columns that allow the corners, Williams explains, "to release into space." The canopy's interior is incised with arabesques abstracted from the cuts the skater's blade etches into the ice. The designs hark back to the early days of competitive skating, when judges scored, not performance per se, but the formations drawn into the ice as skaters executed their routines. Tsien speaks with palpable pride of the social mission of LeFrak Center, characterizing the buildings as "very democratic. Parks and libraries are the most democratic places we have."

Reflecting on the inquiry and discovery that sustains and drives practice, their two voices spoke as one. "We use projects to grow and change," Williams said. "To lose yourself and find yourself," Tsien completed their thought.

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