Pillars of society30 December 2020
Since 1986, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have been designing memorable public institutions that are both striking and subtle. Now, the studio is completing its highest-profile assignment to date: the $500m Barack Obama Presidential Centre. Will Moffitt speaks to the couple about the challenges of building a lasting monument in a US riven by fracture.
“This relationship is a compromise,” Tod Williams explains. “I have to live with Billie’s belief, embedded in mine, even though we see things very differently.”
It’s a sentiment that feels strangely out of step with this moment in time. Middle ground is hard to come by in a world increasingly defined by political and social division.
Williams and Billie Tsien, the eponymous co-founders of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA), are talking to me from their Manhattan apartment, a modest, darkly lit space lined with books, art and a precariously positioned bike. The pair have moved back there for our Zoom call – their studio is a couple of blocks away – and are talking about a project that was always going to politicise: Barack Obama’s $500m presidential library.
Set in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago, the site features a 235ft ‘museum tower’, shaped like a giant biblical vessel that hovers over a two-storey event space, an athletic centre, a recording studio, a winter garden and a sledding hill.
After a two-year delay caused by a lawsuit that was resolved in August, the project looks set to resume construction at a time in which the Obama Foundation is selling his legacy like never before. The ex-president’s recently published memoir shifted 1.7 million copies in its first week.
Gauging the form that such a monument should take has not been easy, however. One might even argue that the 44th president of the US was one of the dissenters. “Obama is very interested in architecture, very interested in form. But he never wanted a grand space for himself,” Tsien says. “He always thought, ‘I can just have a desk in the general office space’ – which just wouldn’t work.”
The challenge, then, was how to create a structure of great symbolic power that could also blend into its surroundings. In the end, Williams and Tsien sought a compromise of their own, opting for a dualistic approach built around the concept of a traditional Brancusi base.
“It means it’s chiselled and ordinary, but at the same time, you have to realise that Brancusi bases only exist as a kind of pedestal for an incredibly sensual, polished element,” Williams explains. “I do think that [Obama] was always cognisant of the power of working across this entire arc.”
The plan has not been without controversy, however. Some have questioned the decision to insert these structures into such a historic setting, seeing it as overshadowing the legacy of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose design of the park remains iconic and influential – not just to Chicago, but to the entire US.
Others have criticised the decision to build in what is largely an affluent area of the city, rather than in a poorer African American neighbourhood. For others, the decision not to pay tangible homage to Obama’s legacy – no books or manuscripts will reside within the complex – is a missed opportunity.
That criticism seems to have only spurred Williams and Tsien on as they strive to finish a piece of architecture that can inspire hope in the surrounding community and beyond. Perhaps even more important than immortalising Obama, Tsien notes, is that the building is primarily dedicated to education and remembering the importance of truth.
“How do you parse truth from fiction?” Tsien asks. “I don’t think you’ll ever control it, but you can direct that power in a positive way. The tower, the museum – those are about the past. But I think what is really important is the Obama Foundation because it’s about the future.”
Building for the future is something that Williams and Tsien have made their calling ever since the couple founded their architectural firm TWBTA in 1986.
After an early focus on interior design that Williams describes as commercial but frustrating – “when something goes out of fashion in New York, they’ll just rip up the whole goddamn interior” – the pair have since endeavoured to build venerable and lasting public spaces: including schools, museums and for not-for-profits. Those that “value issues of aspiration and meaning, timelessness and beauty”.
This desire to enhance social function and heighten the communal experience is a defining feature of all their work, earning them considerable accolades. Most recently, Japan’s prestigious Praemium Imperiale award, for which the Japanese Art Association commended their desire to “design buildings that blend seamlessly into their surroundings”, and “prioritise the experience of the lives lived within them”.
“When we finally could do institutional work, we realised how terrifyingly permanent it was, that the decisions you made [were] lasting,” Williams says. “That’s what we wanted, and working for institutions and people we like and admire has been how we’ve thought about our lives.”
“There’s something about a public institution, that for me, continues to feel like a refuge,” Tsien adds. “I think one of the things that we are thinking about is how do you open up institutions so that they can be welcoming to a larger audience.”
The pair are drawn to buildings that educate and empower, as seen through a portfolio that includes the Neurosciences Institute in California, The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the LeFrak Centre at Lakeside in Brooklyn. Such highprofile, sensitive commissions mean that Obama’s presidential library is not their first brush with controversy. The decision to move The Barnes Foundation from its original home in Merion across Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, for instance, became a matter of significant legal dispute, and inspired a documentary The Art of the Steal, which claimed that moving the 9,000-piece collection broke Albert Barnes’s will.
Williams and Tsien see it as the exact opposite, arguing that Barnes’s primary concern was to educate a broader subsection of US society, a mission the original location failed to serve.
“WHAT WE LIKE ABOUT [DESIGNING] INSTITUTIONS IS THAT THERE’S AN INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY. THAT THEY ARE ACTUALLY CARRYING ON THE PAST AS WE MOVE INTO THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE, WHEREAS COMMERCIAL WORK REALLY IS SUCH A SHARP BLINK IN TIME. IT’S THERE, AND IT’S GONE.”
“When we went to the museum, we realised that very few people could go in. And it was not the people that Barnes envisioned being the beneficiaries of his collection,” Tsien explains. “So moving it didn’t feel incorrect, because it made it available to a much broader population.”
Almost five years in the making, the museum opened in 2012. It is elegant and understated; hewn in fossilized Israeli limestone, with expansive south-facing windows facing rows of London plane trees. Pools of water reflect the entrance, while a light box casts daylight into a central courtyard.
Like most of their work, it is a tranquil place built for people seeking refuge from a world that Williams and Tsien feel has become overly commodified. One can’t help but wonder whether they feel architecture too has been subsumed by market forces?
“The market is something where the brightest and shiniest of all things receives a kind of love but [also a] very passing attention,” Tsien says. “I don’t want to be some sort of curmudgeonly person who’s trying to hold on to something, but it can feel like everything is an investment.”
“What we like about [designing] institutions is that there’s an institutional memory,” Williams adds. “That they are actually carrying on the past as we move into the present and the future, whereas commercial work really is such a sharp blink in time. It’s there, and it’s gone.”
A country asunder
That career-long mission to build institutions that honour the past and anticipate the future feels more necessary in a US riven by anger and division. A country undergoing the fallout of a Donald Trump presidency that is stretching a polarised nation.
Far from being downbeat, however, Williams and Tsien remain hopeful and optimistic about the future. Contrary to what some might say, Williams argues that Trump’s disdain for the truth has only made facts and expertise more important.
Meanwhile, both cite the Black Lives Matter movement as an “incredible” and encouraging example of the kind of organised action that can change the country for the better.
“Because of social media, so many people actually saw things that were happening that they had never seen before, or that they might have only read about in passing,” Tsien says. “But you see that these things do happen. Seeing people dying – I think it really changed people’s consciousness. I think that the country’s consciousness is changing.”
“I grew up in the 1960s, when there was a kind of a blush of hope and we were too naive, and dealt with it in a naive way,” Williams adds. “I feel we are having a much more effective moment. Of course, it will continue in waves. There’ll be regression, but I really feel this is the most meaningful time in my life.”
As the conversation draws to a close, Williams and Tsien are asked how they feel about the destruction of one of their most beloved commissions, The American Folk Art Museum, which was demolished a mere decade after its completion. In 2013, the intimate bronze-clad building was replaced with a shiny glass one designed by Jean Nouvel. The original was a favourite of both Williams and Tsien.
“I’ve had more problems with that than Billie, but often it’s the one you lose that ends up being your favourite,” Williams says. “But actually, the fact is, we don’t have favourites, and you learn from every loss. I’ve been learning from that loss and I’m grateful for the work we’ve got.”