By Hadley Arnold
We see architecture as an act of profound optimism. Its foundation lies in believing that it is possible to make places on the earth that can give a sense of grace to life - and in believing that that matters./Tod Williams Billie Tsien
The New York Studio of Billie Tsien and Tod Williams has built a practice based on a search for certain qualities: an architecture of serenity, a balance of logic and intuition, the primacy of perception over theory, the connection of a building to its site, the strength of restraint, and the importance of the space "between".
Their built work, bordering on minimalism, pays careful attention to context, to detail and to the subtleties of a subdued but rich materiality.
"Work Life Tod Williams Billie Tsien" the first monograph published on the architect's work, presents photographic portfolios of ten recent works, including the masterful "scientific monastery" of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California; the sculptural forms of the Phoenix Art Museum, the complex of seven buildings that make up the New College of the University of Virginia; and the two buildings at the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York.
The Neurosciences Institute, completed in 1995, incorporates laboratories, a theoretical studies building and a chamber music auditorium, all aspects of this project including furniture and landscape were designed by the studio.
This project was termed a "magnificent piece of work" by New York Times Architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, and was cited by Time magazine as one of the best designs of '96.
"We developed a rich palette of materials: the cool concrete is juxtaposed with Texas fossil-stone. At the laboratories a glass curtail shapes the plaza. Italian serpentine marble is cleft and honed. Redwood is used in large wall panels, and cherry for furniture."
In a larger academic context, the New College at the University of Virginia (with VMDO, 1992) radically reinterprets the Jeffersonian rationalism governing the historic campus by arranging a series of splayed finger-like slabs across the sloping site. Seven brick buildings are sited in the landscape.
"Our design connects to the landscape and takes its cues much more from the walls that surround the vegetable garden gardens of the lawn than from the lawn itself."
The addition to the Phoenix Art Museum completed in 1996 is the heart of the cultural community of Phoenix. The project has been only partially realized; the central portion of the composition - a sculpture pavilion with a courtyard and an expanded contemporary art wing - will complete the project.
The architects added two large volumes to the existing museum that are linked by a bridge and museum entry. The temporary-exhibition and great hall are conceived as simple elements made of large precast-concrete panels with an aggregate of green calcite. The new facade is a soft green that complements the mesquite and palo trees planted between the museum and the street.
The Science Building is an addition to an existing ashlar limestone building built in the 1930s. The facade is clad in smooth limestone, presenting a dignified and quiet front to the school's neo-Gothic quadrangle, while most of the exterior is made of split-face concrete block.
Like the Science Building, the Aquatics Center is a new building carefully spliced into an existing building, which in this case is on the opposite side of the campus and was built in 1976. Inside the twenty-five-yard pool, finished in silver-green tile, is set in a deck of Vermont natural-cleft slate.
Two sections of the book are donated to early and in-progress work, including the recently completed American Folk Art Museum.
The final essay, "Who We Are", is a personal exploration of not only the architecture but also the architects.
"Everything in the work is mine; and everything in the work is Billie's."
Photographed by Michael Moran
Publisher: Monacelli Press
Last updated: December 19, 2013
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