Husband and wife team Billie Tsien and Tod Williams are drawn to projects for museums and other institutions that benefit the public.

NEW YORK - Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have maintained one of the most exceptional partnerships in contemporary design, as principals of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, and as husband and wife. The Detroit-born, Princeton-educated Williams and Tsien, who was born in Ithaca, New York, and schooled at Yale and UCLA, founded their firm in 1986, in a sunny ground-floor studio on Central Park South in Manhattan. There it remains, albeit in nicely enlarged quarters, for their 25-person staff. Over the decades they have worked with rather deliberate slowness, producing on the average one building a year. But invariably that building has been a gem.

Their quietly monumental American Folk Art Museum, for example, was rapturously received when it opened in New York in 2002. So it is somewhat surprising that in the middle of the Great Recession, and working primarily as they do for institutional clients, Williams and Tsien have never been busier. In the past few months and in the forthcoming ones, more than a half-dozen projects will open, most notably the new home of the Barnes Collection on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

Other projects include the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, the Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Chicago, the First Congregational Church of Christ in Washington, two dormitories for Haverford College, and a skating rink in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. “All of our projects went forward,” says Tsien, with some sense of disbelief. “But during the recession, these non-profits hadn’t speculated so they had the money in hand. And because everybody wanted work in the past few years, that money went even further.”

Perhaps no recent museum project is as eagerly awaited as the Barnes, which will open May 19. Of course, none sparked more controversy, either, following the decision of its board to relocate from Merion, PA.  Founded in 1922 by Albert C. Barnes to “promote the advancement of education and appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture,” its neo-classical limestone building housed one of the great collections of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and early Modern paintings, as well as decorative arts and antiquities. By the terms of Dr Barnes’ will, the installations were never to be altered.

Considering all the politics involved, the building process was remarkably smooth and speedy.  In mid-2007 TWBTA was one of six firms short-listed for the project (from an initial group of about thirty).  All had been told that their design had to replicate the scale,

Considering all the politics involved, the building process was remarkably smooth and speedy.  In mid-2007 TWBTA was one of six firms short-listed for the project (from an initial group of about thirty).  All had been told that their design had to replicate the scale,proportions and configurations of the original galleries. When it was Williams and Tsien’s turn to go before the Barnes’ building committee, they brought a small model, a few sketches, and a concept– all of which were extremely simple, but powerful.

“We felt the experience of visiting the galleries in the original building was so intense, because of the concentration of paintings. It was overwhelming says Williams. “We asked ourselves, ‘how can we take that experience but make someplace where you can take a breath?’.Their solution was to “break it open,” as Williams continues.  “In our design, we kept the sequence of the galleries as they were, but we inserted a garden on one side of the gallery building, and a light-filled education center on the other side. These are moments where you have a place to rest and think. “By bringing a sense of nature into the sequence, it helps you relax, drop your shoulders, and hopefully sort out the paintings.”


Working with lighting designer Paul Morantz,TWBTA dramatically enhanced the new visitor experience though improvements in natural and artificial light. “In the original building, only two galleries had clerestories. The others were rather dark, and had only ceiling lights. We have built clerestories and installed hidden lighting in moldings throughout the building,” says Tsien. “We have introduced a lot of subtle changes, but they add up. Things will be the same, but different. We feel great about it. The collection is a timeless treasure. In ten years, I think the backstory of the building move will be forgotten. But I think we have made a building that is at the level of the collection, and we have given it fresh air.”

In addition to the two-story gallery building, the new 93,000-square-foot complex includes a 5000-square-foot Special Exhibitions Gallery, a conservation facility, auditorium and café, built after a successful $200 million capital campaign. “When the client is well-organized it makes all the difference,” says Tsien. “The Barnes building committee knew what they wanted and gave us a very clear mandate, and, furthermore, the market in Philadelphia was really ready for this work. So it all proceeded remarkably fast.”


“I feel very privileged to have worked with Tod and Billie, who became not only creative partners but also friends,” says Derek Gillman, Executive Director and President of the Barnes Foundation. “By thinking so carefully about how to integrate the core mission of education in to the architectural fabric of the campus they’ve added a new dimension to the Barnes as an institution.”

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the new Asia Society Center is another triumph–though its construction process was considerably slower and more circuitous. “We were one of three firms on the short list for the project and we went to Hong Kong for the decision–on September 11, 2001,” recalls Williams.  “At 9PM Hong Kong time – 9AM New York time – we found out we got the job. We were at a restaurant to celebrate when we got a phone call….” Following the delay that naturally followed that catastrophe, the SARS panic brought development to another temporary halt, while the process to purchase the real estate for the site also moved at a glacial pace.

 “There is not a huge history of philanthropy in Hong Kong, so people are not used to giving money for cultural causes,” explains Williams. Ultimately, the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust provided major funding for the $50 million project, along with several individuals, including Maurice R. Greenberg and Robert and Chantal Miller.

Located on a lush 3.5 acre site in the heart of Hong Kong, the Center is an outstanding example of adaptive reuse.  In addition to constructing one new building, TWBTA renovated three existing structures - munitions factories and storage units built by the British military between the 1860s and 1940s, which had been abandoned. Williams and Tsien came up with a plan to unify the dramatic site through extensive landscape design.

“In the middle of this vertical city, we built this horizontal, very green, complex,” says Tsien. At the same time, TWBTA’s first tall building is just about to open, in Chicago. The ten-story Missouri-limestone-clad Logan Center is now a new landmark on the verdant Midway of the University of Chicago campus, and houses an art gallery, auditorium and artists studios. “The University wanted this to connect to the community, and I think they were also sort of using it to send a message–‘we’re not just about economics.’” (Forty million dollars for the project was donated by the late David Logan, a real estate tycoon.)Though they are often pursued by commercial developers, Williams and Tsien very much prefer working in the nonprofit sector. 

“We gravitate to institutional clients who are trying to make the world better. It is really gratifying for us to be a part of that,” says Tsien. “We like being engaged with people who make art or who look at it.”              

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]