Billie Tsien on Imbuing Buildings With Feeling
Growing up in the 1950s in the only Chinese family in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, Billie Tsien always felt like an outsider. She would seclude herself in the shower of her family’s home’s master bathroom, behind closed doors, escaping into books for hours before her parents, who had originally moved to America from Shanghai to study at Cornell, would find her. Through this Tsien developed a deep understanding of the value of a rich interior life—a concept she has gone on to apply to her work at the New York–based architectural practice Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects Partners (TWBTA), which she co-founded with her husband, Tod Williams, in 1986.
The ethereal craft inherent in TWBTA’s structures, which include parks, libraries, museums, and other people-focused places, emanates from Billie and Tod’s belief that architecture is an act of service, and an opportunity to create quiet moments where visitors can indulge in the simple yet powerful emotions that can be stirred when encountering beauty. When Tsien, now 72, reflects on her firm’s philosophy—which entails making buildings that transcend solutions, that respect the earth, and that are measured by the lives lived within them—it’s clear that she profoundly, even poetically, shapes each project’s awe-inspiring energy.
Tsien’s deliberate, unhurried methodology is apparent in everything she does. She advocates for listening and community engagement—a central part of her firm’s high-profile, often controversial public works, such as Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation (2012), Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art (2019), and Chicago’s Obama Presidential Center, which is slated to break ground this fall. Tsien and her staff spend time with the craftspeople who create many of their materials—including Dutch textile artist Claudy Jongstra, whose vibrant felt paintings grace the walls of New York’s David Rubenstein Atrium (2009), and Danish brick-makers whose product features on the facade of dormitories at Pennsylvania’s Haverford College (2012)—and select them according to the emotional responses they elicit. She gives the same focused attention to the holistic experience of a building as she does the handrails that will go inside it. When it comes to the planet, Tsien thinks buildings should embrace measurable ways to minimize their environmental footprints as well as immeasurable ones, such as the meandering pathways of the LeFrak Center (2013), in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, that invite people to appreciate the natural wonders around them.
On this episode, Tsien details the origins of and rationale behind her approach to the built environment, talking with Spencer about designing structures as containers for life, why history doesn’t unfold in a straight line, and architecture as both an honor and a responsibility.
Tsien details the core beliefs of her firm, which include moving slowly, listening, and serving others. She also talks about how she navigates roadblocks and the importance of collaboration.
Tsien discusses the significance of designing structures that last. She also considers the connections between architecture, memory, and the senses.
Tsien talks about how being receptive has led her firm to discover meaningful, sometimes unexpected, building materials. She also reflects on the challenge of pursuing beauty in architecture.
Tsien describes growing up in one of the only Chinese families in her suburban New Jersey town, discovering her love of studio culture as a student at Yale University, and learning to embrace and prioritize her inner world.
Tsien recalls raising her son, Kai, in the penthouse of New York City’s Carnegie Hall, and the familial trust she’s developed with her staff in the firm’s democratic workspace.
Tsien speaks about several of her practice’s previous and current projects, including the Neurosciences Institute (now the Scripps Research Institute) (1995) in La Jolla, California, the LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Billie. Welcome to Time Sensitive. It’s so great to have you in the studio today.
BILLIE TSIEN: I am feeling great pleasure in actually being in the studio today.
SB: [Laughs] I wanted to start with the five core beliefs of your firm.
BT: Wait, there are five? Okay.
SB: Well, there’s five that I’ve read about. I want to talk about the third one first, but I’ll list them out here. One is to be of use, or to serve. One is to last. One is to move slowly, which is where I want to begin. Another is to say yes, and to say no. And the last is to make space, not objects.
On the subject of slow, you and your partner, Tod [Williams], have written essays on the subject. I think it’s really at the core of your firm’s work. One of these essays, “On Slowness,” from 1999, is a sort of a manifesto, if we could call it that. And the other, “Slowly (Improving) Vision” [from later that year], continues this conversation forward. So I was wondering if you could sum up your thoughts on slowness, on speed, and the relationship of those things to your studio.
BT: Well, first of all, I love the five tenets. I have to maybe even, potentially, listen to this—because I never want to listen to myself—to try to remember what they are, as you said them. And, in preparation, I did reread the two essays. To be honest, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually quietly read them. And Tod looked at me over a cup of coffee and he said, “Does it hold up?” And I said, “Well, in many ways, it holds up.”
I want to start out by saying, I think slowness is sometimes really aggravating. It’s not a zen, floating through calm waters [kind of thing]. I will credit Tod with being the most aggravating proponent of slowness, because even as he goes full speed in his life, in work, he’s always sort of shredding things, pulling them apart. And it’s very, very important for the work, but it so goes against the grain of the way the world works now.
Sometimes it’s aggravating because we all feel the pressure of the way people want things to move now. But he’s a little more immune to pressure than I am. So, yes, I think that we still deeply believe in slowness. It’s a hard thing to hold on to. But even now, having this conversation, it’s a kind of slow conversation, as indeed, your whole focus is about a kind of slow conversation. In order to really think about something, you need to have the time. And so I think work that is thoughtful needs time.
I know that in architecture today, at least—until relatively recently, when we’ve understood that we’re part of a bigger world and there are very, very large problems, as so much of the culture is about image, architecture, as part of the culture—has been very much about image. Image means that you look at something, and you get it right away. Before we started talking, I was saying that the big dividing line [of a project] is, is it better in person, or is it better not in person? And I think that has to do with time. Work that is about an image is about grasping it right away. Work that is about a sense of place is about being there and having the time to be there. Really be there.
SB: I’m struck by a memory I have, which was the first time I ever came across your work, which was attending my older brother Brandon’s high school graduation [at Loomis Chaffee in Windsor, Connecticut, in 2002], where Tod and you happened to be the graduation speakers [their son, Kai, was a graduating student that year]. You both spoke about the importance of listening, and I have never forgotten that. I think about how slowness, and this idea of slowness, connects to the act of listening, and that we have, in our sped-up culture, also created a culture of constantly talking, but not leaving space, or making space to listen, to listen to others.
And I’m just struck by this idea right now, of this moment we’re in, where there’s a lot of political strife. There are a lot of issues related to racism, to power structures, to social dynamics, and we are increasingly using this phrase “make space.” And it’s not lost on me that you’re an architect who makes space, and you also create buildings that, it seems to me, listen. That relate to the environment, because the people involved in making them listen to the different parties, or environmental needs, by actually going to the site, spending time there, interacting with it, maybe even listening to nature and the earth, on some level. Could you speak to this act of listening, and how that relates to making space?
BT: Well, don’t you find that you hear more, these days?
SB: Because of Covid?
BT: And we’re probably alone more. When you’re alone, you listen more, whether it’s those long walks, and you hear birds. I really haven’t ever paid that much attention to birds. I mean, the world is a quieter place. But I do believe that listening is not simply receiving. Listening is engaging. It’s really engaging. And I think it’s a skill that, as architects, we say we have, but I don’t know whether it’s really been so cultivated, because we’ve been taught to be so busy explaining our ideas that we don’t so much listen.
Part of that is the training that you get in architecture school: You have an idea, you make a project, then you describe your project, and you defend your project. And you haven’t had to really listen to anybody other than your critics, who you may or may not choose to listen to. And I think having clients with whom you share values [is vital]—and we’re lucky, because over time, we’ve been able to follow work where we share the values of the client. Then listening becomes so important, because you’re embodying a set of shared values in a very, very particular way.
Listening is something that, for many years, has been seen as a trait that is both negative and female. You’re there to listen. But I think, as a woman, you learn to listen to many things simultaneously, and you are able to listen and think at the same time. I think that’s a very subtle, positive strength. The muscles of listening.
SB: One of the things about your work that I find really pleasing is that there’s a nonlinear quality to it—to the architecture itself, but also in understanding the process through which it’s made, the nonlinear approach. And I wanted to explore this thinking with you, because I think that there’s this idea in our culture where we feel like we have to move forward with certainty all the time: There’s one path. There’s a clear road. We’re going to follow it.
I think so often, incredible ideas end because there’s no linear path forward, and those who are exploring, or creating, often stop, because they feel like, Well, this isn’t working, or they stall. They don’t find a way around whatever that is. I’m wondering if you could talk about that in the design process, and just thinking about how you organize your thinking when roadblocks come up, when hurdles get in the way. Because it’s one thing to see beautiful pictures of a completed building; it’s another thing to realize something in the end, and to understand what it took to get there.
BT: I think a couple of things are at work. One is large focus, small focus. When we’re thinking about a project, a building, you have, of course, a large focus. It’s called the “vision.” But vision, for us, is never actually a true vision. It’s not like I could draw what the vision is. Often, the vision has to do with words, or an intention towards which you are working. That’s the large focus, which, because it’s an intention and not an image, you have much more freedom to find your way. And then there are many bad steps, but it’s not like you’re driving towards something that you imagine, like a kind of ice palace of Superman or something. It’s not like you have this thing, and you’re trying to make everything fall into that thing. You have a desire, or an intention. So you’re moving in that direction. Is this taking you closer to your intention?
Then the small focus is, But what about the handrail? That allows you to forget about the vision, and think. You have to solve a problem: there’s the handrail. And recently, we’ve been thinking in terms of universal access. I’m segueing now, but people are starting to ask for a handrail at the standard height, and a handrail at a lower height. And you actually see that in elementary schools from the thirties [as seen at MoMA PS1, located in a former public school building in Queens, New York]. As you’re going to the stairs, there’s the upper handrail, and the lower handrail. And you’re thinking, What about the handrail?
We’re thinking about this at the Obama Presidential Center. They want to have two handrails. And how do you make two handrails that don’t look odd together? But what that does is, when you start to then focus on a specific problem, it takes you away; it gives you a little break. It’s like a small little cup of tea and a cookie off to the side.
Then you can go back to trying to find how that handrail, that you maybe solved, can fit in to the larger vision. You have an idea about a kind of tapestry, but you first start by looking at the little knot, and then you can go back to the larger vision. That really helps in moving around problems.
I would also say the other thing is, we don’t work alone. This is a collaboration. We’ve always said, “People tell you things that help move you forward.” Certainly [regarding] what a site is, what the land is, who’s going to build it, what the client wants.
And most importantly, people in the studio, who are incredible. It’s been interesting, because we’re now starting to have some in-person meetings. Everyone [previously] had Zoom meetings. We also have, once a week, a kind of check-in. And what people have been doing is, sometimes, showing their home renovation projects, which is fun, because architects love to see what other architects have done to their homes. It’s a reminder of how particular and interesting every architect in our office’s vision is when it’s particularly their own. Then it all comes together and makes a very strong rope.
And so, it’s so many things, but it’s never, like, what [the fictional architect character in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead] Howard Roark said: “This is the tower. This is how I envisioned it. And we’re going to do anything to make it happen.” It’s an accretion.
SB: Yeah. It strikes me that what you’re talking about is making space, literally and figuratively. That you’re making space for people in your studio to bring their individual voices forward, but also collectively, you’re all making space, literally. [Laughs]
I wanted to talk about the relationship between architecture and the planet, buildings and earth, and how you think about the importance of locale, of place. And in this current moment, in this climate crisis we all find ourselves in, how are you thinking about the buildings you make from that perspective of being of the earth, with the earth, made of the earth?
BT: It’s a very big question. And it’s interesting because—I have to say that I’m not a very AIA person. That’s the American Institute of Architects. They’re getting much better, but I’ve never particularly agreed with their business agenda. I’ve been involved with this [AIA Knowledge Community] group called the Committee on the Environment. I understand the importance of metrics, because you need to measure yourself against something in order to see where you are.
But I also very much believe that our work, while it pays attention to metrics, believes in a sense of sustainability, which is not reflected by metrics. [Architect Louis] Kahn talked about the measurable and immeasurable. And they’re both important, but the immeasurable is what, to me, is about sustaining something that both addresses the world and your soul.
A building that has always been so powerful to us is the Pantheon, in Rome. It’s an ancient building, and it has survived through many different kinds of civilizations. Its [bronze] panels have been ripped off, and what’s left are the deep bones of the building. But the connection to the light, through the oculus at the center, is something that is immeasurable. It has a real relationship to the earth and to light. It’s sustainable in that, somehow, it’s managed to last all this time. And it’s sustainable in a way that makes people appreciate the earth around them.
I want our work to both respond to the desire for a kind of metric calculation of how it acts in the world. But the most important thing, for me, is that which cannot be measured. They need to go hand in hand. If it’s only about numbers, then you lose the soul. And soul is what’s needed in order to sustain yourself. So we sustain the world if we can, and we try to sustain ourselves, if we can.
SB: Yeah. I mean, you so rarely hear in sustainability conversations, the relationship to this idea of spirituality, of transcendence, of spaces that have a soul. And I think what you’re talking about has to do a lot with longevity, and creating something that can stand the test of time. Obviously, I’m sure it’s not your intent from the outset that you would build something that will be around forever. But I assume that everything you do, you intend to last a very long time.
SB: How do you think about buildings in that sense? Do you view them as sort of landmarks, as things that you hope will stay, and will last? And I guess, maybe even more broadly, too, how do you think about the ways in which we build up, tear down, and destroy? Where do you see that throughline? The idea that something can be rebirthed, that something can be torn down, something can be continued through intervention. [Pauses] It’s a loaded question.
BT: Yeah, I know it’s a loaded question. I said to Tod, because, I don’t know, his passion levels…. I mean, we share a common line, but his passion levels are going up and down, not exactly in line with mine. So I’ve always said, “Well, buildings are not children.” And he kind of equates them with children, maybe. Actually, I’d like to say probably children are higher. [Laughs] But he gets into a point, certainly, where….
SB: There’s a reverence.
BT: Yeah. We’ve designed buildings which are torn down. The [American] Folk Art Museum was torn down. That was very difficult. But I also feel that people are torn down, and all you can do is try, in the time that you have—try. Really, really try. And so I think, what we always think about with every building that we make is, actually, longevity. And it has to do with things like, How is this building maintained? Very, very unglamorous ideas. What is the material that will last? Where do you need a corner guard and a baseboard? How can the bones be strong enough so that they can sustain other lives?
I mean, the best thing to do is if you make something that is a container that can hold other lives. Because that’s what architects do: We are making containers for other lives, and we have to be able to let them go. In fact, I think when I was younger, I probably cared more about authorship. But now I realize, sometimes, I don’t know who designed great places. And I realize I care less about having people know who designed a place, but really only having them enjoy the place.
SB: More how it feels to be there.
BT: Yeah. And just say, “This is amazing.” Not, “Who designed it?” It’s easier to let that go.
SB: I want to bring up the intersection of architecture and the senses. Obviously, there’s the brilliant book by [Finnish architect] Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Your work is so much about this, so much about tactility and sensorial engagement. I wanted to ask how you think about the senses when it comes to visitors to a project by your firm, and also that intersection of memory and time with the senses, and how all that is this potent stew of how we might experience meaningful, or substantial, or even transcendent architecture.
BT: I was putting together a lecture before I came here, and it was sort of about light. And light is very much, obviously, something that you sense. Traditionally, it’s been a focus of architects, always about the light, the light. But you can’t actually understand the light unless you’re there. So even as we talk about it as an important quality, we can’t really describe it, and we can’t really capture it, and you have to be there to sort of feel it.
The best things about the experience of a building are things that you can’t really describe. But we think about them all the time, and we very much design everything from the inside out. It always starts from inside, like what you see, what you hear, where you sit. And then it works its way out. So it’s very much about being inside the head of a person: what they might see, what they might feel, what they might hear.
I was just thinking, as you were talking, how powerful and wonderful a sense of smell is. When I was a kid, they had these movies that had smells. And it wasn’t a full movie, but they would peel an orange [in the film], and then they would infuse the theater with the smell of an orange. It was so weird. And now that I think about it, what a weird thing to do.
Your sense of smell is so powerful when you smell certain things, of course, you remember so much. My mom passed away two months ago, and when I cook things [now], a sense of smell really brings [her] back. It’s very, very powerful. I’m not imagining that we’re going to be squirting out little smells in buildings, but it suddenly occurs to me that we need to make a potential. And it’s probably more like an outdoor, or sort of plant smell, or something, where that sense of smell is kind of present. Weirdly enough, I think there’s a hotel that’s connected to a spa [in New York City]. As you walk down Fifth Avenue, you go over a particular grate, and you can smell lavender. And I’m kind of like [sniffs and laughs].
SB: Well, I think it’s fascinating, too—we’re still in this pandemic where hundreds of thousands of people around the world, if not more than a million, have lost their sense of smell. And they certainly are thinking about that sense in a different way, depending on whether it’s come back, how fast it’s come back.
BT: Given the lives lost, it seems like it’s trivial. And then when you really think about it, it would change so much your sense of joy in life.
SB: Materiality is something I wanted to talk about with you. It’s very much connected to this conversation we’re having about the senses. So much architecture these days is: Build it quick, build it as cheaply as possible. It’s effectively as disposable as an Ikea cupboard or something.
There’s a heft and a sort of weight to your buildings, a substance that makes them feel very rooted in the earth, and very grounded and in their place, and [a sense] that they shouldn’t be moved, or taken down, or anything like that. For you, materiality is not about this notion of pure abstraction or just an idea of wanting to make something that feels weighty or heavy. There’s this real kind of experiential depth, I would say, to your material decisions. Could you talk about that, how you choose, use, and combine materials?
BT: “Weighty” is a very apt description. But everything is weighty, actually. Everything weighs a lot. I look out the window, and I see these glass buildings, and people talk about them as being “light and airy.” Glass is a really, really heavy material. And so it’s the perception of what is weighty. So stone, you can’t see through, and you think, Oh, that’s weighty. Glass, you can see through. And that’s airy. But in the same amounts, there’s not that much difference in their weight.
With stone, you feel two things. You feel a sense of time, because it took eons to make the stone. And you imagine that if something is made of stone, it lasts for a longer time. And it also encloses you in a way that makes an opening feel much more important, and sort of thoughtful. Because there’s something solid around you, and then there’s some place where you can see through.
But in the choice of materials, we try to spend a lot of time not imagining what the material is, but often going to places where they have the material, they make the material, they excavate, they mine, they fabricate. And it’s there that you learn a lot. Architects are very self-absorbed, controlling people in general. And, as a profession, we sort of have a tendency, as many professions [do], to just look through a very narrow kind of lens. And I think the more you see—whether it’s art or music or dance or reading, so many things—the larger the world is, and the more you think about materials in a different way.
Going back to putting together this lecture, I was looking at a project, [the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College in Vermont]. And I was thinking about [how] it’s made out of leftover marble. We were visiting an old New England church, and its pathway was big slabs of marble, but they’re all different colors. I mean, they’re just a patchwork of marble. And you see that, actually, of course, in ancient cities where you see there are many different kinds of marble that pave the surface of the ground.
SB: Terrazzo, basically.
BT: Yeah. And so it had us start to think about, What happens to the leftover marble? We found [that], prior to the invention—I’m really now going down another line here, but you can reel me back in—before the invention of a diamond blade, which could cut harder stone, all of the state [capitol] houses and important buildings were made out of marble. That was the main stone industry. And then when they invented a diamond blade, they could cut granite, and things started to shift to granite, because granite is stronger than marble.
So it turns out that Vermont and New England had huge marble quarries, which were really abandoned at a certain time because [demand] shifted and the market wasn’t there. I mean, I think the same thing is certainly true in Carrara, [Italy]. We found a place that had bought the abandoned chunks of marble from quarries that could have been closed a hundred years ago. It was like an elephant’s graveyard of marble, all different kinds. And that had to do with looking at this pathway.
So then we went to the guy who owned the quarry, and we went through and chose big chunks, but they were not related. Nothing is consistent. Because some might have been a hundred years ago. Some might’ve been seventy years ago. Some might’ve been upstate Vermont, but they all were marble. They were just different kinds. His business was actually cutting the gravestones for graves like [those] at the Arlington [National Cemetery], where they’re all quite small.
And so we said to him, “Okay, could we use this marble? And we’ll use you to cut it? You don’t have to cut it any larger than the tombstones that you’re cutting.” Because this equipment looked like it was out of the Henry Ford museum with big sort of leather belts running these wheels. So we built this project out of the marble.
How did that happen? It didn’t happen because we thought, Oh, I saw it in another magazine and it was interesting to see this marble, and we’re going to spec it from an image that we see online. It happened because we kept our eyes open, and we went someplace else. That goes back to slowness, because that’s not a very fast way. But we found these amazing people along the way. And that happens so many times, whenever you’re able to take the time to go to a place where people make things, because they know more than you’ll ever know. And they are so happy to talk with you about it.
SB: Yeah, very nonlinear. It’s not like going on Google and saying, “I want marble from Vermont.” [Laughs]
BT: Which certainly is a starting place. But if it’s your ending place, that’s very limiting.
SB: I wanted to discuss beauty. It’s a subject that I got into on this podcast with [graphic designer] Stefan Sagmeister.
BT: Oh, I love his sense of humor. I went to a show that he did at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia], and he had these cards. The card was like a little yellow card, and the card gave a direction, like, “Clap your hands.” And I was at a restaurant afterwards and I left it [there]. And as I walked out, the waitress walked over to me and she goes, [applauds]. I burst out laughing, and she handed me the card.
SB: It’s “The Happy Show.”
BT: Right. That’s it.
SB: And it probably made you both happy.
BT: Yes, I was overjoyed.
SB: Well, he did this brilliant project and exhibition around the subject of beauty. And beauty is something Tod and you have explored quite a bit and talked about through your work. “Beauty” is one of these words that designers and especially architects tend to steer away from. I was wondering, why is it something that, in many ways, Tod and you have sort of leaned into, and in fact, I think, explored to pretty profound effect?
BT: Oh, well, thank you. I mean, beauty is not that something we all want. We define it differently. I always reprimand Tod when he says the word “decorative” in a bad [tone]. Like, “decorative.” And I say, “Excuse me, I think ‘decorative’ is a good word.”
The desire to, in a certain way, erase emotion from architecture … beauty was and has been something that feels too emotional to deal with. And it’s changing now. I think it’s changing as the profession changes, but the idea that one lives with [Le] Corbusier furniture, the requisite Barcelona chair, maybe that lounge, if you went wild and crazy, the sort of Corbusier [and Charlotte] Perriand [LC4] lounge. That’s about as far as you’re going to go. And color is emotional, and telling a story through beauty is emotional. So I think that’s very important, because it gets back to the senses, and making a space that speaks to your senses—and that speaks to your emotions.
SB: While still offering enough space for your own personal interpretation.
BT: Yeah. And I think, in a way, that’s a place where we can be faulted. Because it’s important to leave that space for other people to fill in. We have to work hard to both pursue beauty, but also balance it with a kind of quiet.
SB: Yeah. Which, in another way, is also a function. It’s a function of the building to allow for that sense of quiet, or that sense of space to have flexibility to do different things with it or in it.
I wanted to go back in time to young Billie growing up in Ithaca, New York. Could you talk about what it was like for you as a kid to be a first-generation Chinese American?
BT: I primarily grew up in a suburb in New Jersey, which is more Ithaca than Ithaca. I mean, so I was an infant then, and also that’s a college town, so that’s very different. But a suburb in New Jersey was a place that, from the age of, I would say about 10, I knew I was going to leave.
We were the only Chinese family, and there was one other Chinese boy in my high school from a neighboring town. And I’ve always felt “other,” and in many ways, that was upsetting to me as a teenager. And then I realized it has become a very comfortable position for me to inhabit, because I’m culturally American. I’m so American. I’m psychologically, as Tod will tell you, very, very Chinese. He calls me the “Great Wall of China.” Because when I get angry, I become very silent. It lasts for eons, that anger. And it’s possible that you might be able to see it from the moon.
I have a very good friend named Gish Jen, who is a fiction writer—she would be an interesting person for you to talk to. And she wrote a book called Typical American. She talks about growing up in Scarsdale, [New York]. And strangely enough, my mother and her mother went to the same college in Shanghai. But she identified as being Jewish. That’s who I identified with as I grew up in high school. I sort of identified with being Jewish. I mean, part of it is that my best friend was, is still, Jewish. I would go with her to Jewish youth group dances. And that was before, let’s say, there were the adoptions of Chinese girls. So it was definitely odd. But I was so happy to realize that other people [identified with people from other backgrounds], too, because I wanted to be in some way, other people.
My father, who probably was less…. I realize, in retrospect now, there are many reasons why he might’ve been unhappy. He worked as an engineer and my mother always worked as a biochemist, so they were always working. But he said, “You may think that you’re white, but people see you as yellow.” I was shocked that he said something like that. And I realize now, it came from some experiences that he had. I am particularly aware of that now.
So, as I said, I’m kind of both. I’m neither one nor the other. But as I see the Asian American violence that’s happening now…. I think when you can be identified as “other” by the way you look, you’ll always in some way be a target. And sometimes it’s a target for, it could be, even adulation. “Oh, look at you.” Or you’re a target for the bad things that are happening now.
I think what that does is, the sense of being on the outside, and I know many people have it for many different reasons, is [that] you’re not trapped by a history. You stand outside the history of a kind of mainstream. And so, sometimes you intersect and sometimes you stand apart. Sometimes you choose to intersect, and sometimes you’re forced to stand apart. But I think it can be a creative place. Clearly for some people it’s not been a creative place.
SB: Yeah. It strikes me that there’s a sort of connection also to the experience of those who are either survivors, or who have experienced deep trauma, with populations of people who have, for one reason or another, been targets.
BT: It’s something that was not ever spoken about in my family, but kind of understood in terms of a connection to other people who feel “outside,” which is, I think, unusual. Maybe unusual in Asian families, where your parents are really, very much trying to “make it” in the world to support you, to take care of you, to make sure you make it in the world, to make sure you’re safe—which is why there’s a desire for you to be the doctor, lawyer, et cetera, that will give you a safe place in the world.
But I think particularly because of my mother, there was always this sense that you needed to … that we were part of a population that was outside the mainstream. We needed to take care of each other. In many ways, I carry that inside me, thinking, How can I—wherever I am—think about changing a culture, in small ways, because that’s all we can do.
SB: I wanted to mention this connection that I feel between your buildings and this experience you’re describing, which is, when you know and sense yourself as “other,” it causes a turning inward. And your buildings to the visitors, to those who experience them, often lead to a turning inward. There is, as you said, from the inside out, there’s an interiority that’s at play. I’m wondering if that, psychologically, is a connection you make between your experience growing up and forming this interior self, and exploring that, or letting that out through the medium of architecture.
BT: [Pauses] I can’t believe that question. It’s such a perceptive question. Makes me feel like crying. Well, yes, yes, and yes. I mean, I know we have talked [about] our work, when we present it, as work that is about a slow unfolding, and to not express on the outside what it is you’re feeling or having—see, I fell into the feeling thing. Because the feeling in the buildings, there’s like—that question really brought all that stuff up—to not express everything on the outside, and leave the inside impoverished.
And so, certainly, I think that it’s, for me, a very Asian quality that you don’t say everything that you think, and I’m not…. Some people—I mean, it’s always been the “inscrutable” Oriental—some people may say that I’m not expressing everything, but I have a lot of feelings inside. And that whole sense of withholding, I think, is important in the work that we do, and is expressed in the work that we do.
SB: It’s as much about what’s there as what’s not there.
BT: Yeah, exactly. Growing up, because I was such a bookworm, I would hide, and I would go into my parents’ bedroom and close the door, and I would go into their bathroom, and close the door, and I would go into the shower, and close the door, and I would hide from everybody with my books. I could sit there for hours before they could find me. And that whole sense of layering, layering, and layering, and then something that is alive and rich inside—which were the stories that I was reading—I think, is important in the kind of experience of architecture. That it’s a sort of layering and layering.
SB: What were some of the books that stood out to you, or that you remember most, from your youth that affected you?
BT: It’s funny because I am in a book club and—everybody’s in a book club, but I love my book club. Somebody, during the course of the discussion, said, “What was your favorite book as a child?” I wouldn’t have an answer to that, because I read so much and I forget so much. But the two books that, as a child, were super important to me [were] a book called Thee, Hannah!, which was about a young girl who was a Quaker. And she was in Philadelphia, and eventually was working for the Underground Railroad. That, to me, was an amazing book. It was like, You can be a child, and you can be something that helps other people.
And the other book is called [The Borrowers]. It’s about a family of tiny people that live in your … wherever you are, they’re with you. They could be underneath the floorboards. And what they do is they collect things that you think you lost, and then they use them to make a small house, underneath the floorboards. It’s a kind of creepy idea right now, but this idea that these things can have different meanings—like, a thimble becomes a stool—was really important to me. Because I think as a child, we all imbue things with a huge power.
I don’t know if you still have the belief that things have feelings, but for such a long time, I had the belief that things had feelings. A game that we played with our son, Kai, who’s now a designer, is, Would you rather be a Perrier bottle or a floorboard? That’s how it starts. Because then you have to talk about the feeling of a floorboard, or a Perrier bottle, and which you would rather be, because you’re embodying a material or a thing.
SB: It’s a very Japanese idea, in some ways. It connects that also to the notion of animism—that there’s energy embedded in everything, which is something I strongly believe.
So that second book that you mentioned, it sounds novelistic, but there’s also an architectural element to it. When did architecture come into the picture for you as something that would be a life journey, or a practice?
BT: Very late. Very late. My undergraduate degree [from Yale University] was in fine arts. But I felt kind of adrift, because in art you’re always needing to really posit your own problem. What is it that you’re trying to do? And so I never really thought about architecture very much, and I wanted to be a graphic designer, actually. Because in a way it was a “more practical” sort of art. And then I stumbled into architecture school because I was in Los Angeles, and UCLA was very inexpensive at that time if you were a resident. They had an architecture program, and I walked into it sideways. I had no idea of what it was, what it entailed, what it was about, but what I immediately loved were two things. One is the culture of a studio. To be with other people at weird times at night, tired, laughing, eating, working, was wonderful.
And the other part was, somebody else thought of the problem. Your only responsibility was to try and think of a solution. So your creativity had a corral around it, which allowed you, in a certain way, to judge yourself. I mean, we’re sort of going back to metrics now, but I mean, these are rough metrics. You have a little fence around yourself and you know when you bump into the fence, you know if you jump over the fence, but the fence is where you start. Those two things made architecture a great discovery. I spent probably the first ten years that I was an “architect,” wondering if I should be an architect. Because I’m very much a person who likes to tie up the little ends, and not have anything loose floating around.
And architecture is a process where you tie up the ends. And even as you’re tying up something, something else is becoming loose over at the other side. You’re constantly juggling, which I thought was a horrible experience, until I realized that being a parent is very much like [that]; every time you think you’ve got something tied up, something else is coming undone.
I was seeing a therapist at the time, and he said, “You have to redefine what you think is creative. Because if you have a narrow definition of what ‘creative’ is, then you will be an unhappy person. But if you can expand what is potentially creative, there are more possibilities to become a happier person.” Because it was like, Well, I have to do this. I have to do this. I have this. And that’s not … but I want to do this. But can you start to understand how those things can be considered part of our creative process? And so, it’s a very large profession with many ways of acting in it. This iconic idea of a creator, and the created, is really archaic.
SB: You run this studio now with your work and life partner, Tod, and it’s very much a family affair—not just because the couple at the top is married, but because you really run the studio as a family unit.
BT: We try to.
SB: Or try to. Could you talk about that? The notion of studio as family, and maybe also how that connects to this slowness idea that we started this interview with.
BT: Well, we also have a third partner, Paul Schulhof, who’s been in the studio for probably almost twenty years and has been our partner for—my sense of time is very bad, so I’ll call it eight [years].
Certainly it’s easier to be a family when you’re a family of, let’s say, six or seven, and it’s harder to be a family when you’re a family of [thirty-seven]. But a number of things, I think, help to make us feel like more of a family. Like many studios today, it’s extremely informal. The times of coming in and leaving are pretty flexible. What you wear is extremely flexible. We don’t have pets, but if you have children, and they need to come in, for some reason, that’s fine. We try to eat together as much as possible, because food is the focus of all things.
And we probably know less about the personal lives of people in our studio than we did in the past, because there’s a bigger age gap. I mean, it was that these people were our friends, or brothers and sisters, and then they were our younger brothers and sisters, and then they were sort of like our children. We haven’t gotten to the point where they’re our grandchildren yet, but the sense that—not that you need to share your personal life, but if something personal is happening, you can tell us and that there’s always—
BT: Space. Yeah. Well, also, the ability to do what you need to do in your life, if you need to do it. For some people, after a very intense time on a project, it’s like, “I need six weeks where I’m just going to be on a sabbatical.” Or family issues. “I need to be home, in a different place”—which of course, now, it doesn’t make any difference. But there’s always that flexibility there. So in that way, it’s about being a family.
SB: That’s a very interesting relationship to time. This notion of familial trust in a workplace, that allows for the messiness of life to enter, and be embraced, and accepted, and to treat time as something a little more fungible and moveable, [rather] than something that’s so strictly rigid or linear.
BT: And I think that has so much to do with trust. And of course, families are built on trust. Trust extends to time. You put in the time that you need to, and you take the time that you need to.
SB: And I think it shows up in the work.
BT: That’s good. [Laughs]
SB: Which I want to talk about. And there’s so much we could talk about, including the incredible thirty years you spent living in a penthouse above Carnegie Hall. I do want to just touch on that quickly. Most people, of course, know this great recital hall, but what they might not realize is that there were all these studios in that space. And Tod and you lived in, and raised Kai in, the penthouse. Tell me about that space, and also how that space informs your thinking about architecture, and its relationship to time, and to light.
BT: Many, many deep ways. First of all, it had a glorious, north-facing skylight. So light—sky light, light from the top—is a continuing element and theme. It had a series of relatively small windows, which were below normal eye height. So that the top of the window was at, probably just about my height, like about five-two, which meant that you didn’t look up—but you were always kind of looking down.
And so this idea of a discreet window in a solid wall was really important. [There was a] sense of a vertical mixture of life, and work, and art—because there were people who lived there. There were people who rehearsed there. There were flamenco dancers. There were people you’d see in the hallway who were auditioning, and so you’d see them talking to themselves before they went in for an audition. There were singers, of course.
There was Bill Cunningham, who took the photographs of people in fashion in the streets. It was an odd mixture of crazy people, which, to me, was a kind of joy and very much a part of New York at the time. I think now, there are pockets of odd people, but not such a condensed conglomeration of odd people doing different things in the same building with a kind of vertical circulation. So that idea—
SB: Sort of a city within a city.
BT: Of that mixture, yeah, was exactly something that we’ve always felt was a very, very creative atmosphere. And then there was, of course, the recital hall down below, which was amazing.
Before it was renovated, it was so porous. You could find a million ways of getting inside the hall. When Kai was a young boy growing up there, it was really his playground, because he would roam around the hallways, and there were many more interior stairs up and down. You could go maybe from [floor] thirteen to twelve, but you couldn’t go anywhere else. So there were just these odd pockets.
I remember he found a way in through … it wasn’t a trap door, but it was a small door in a wall, and you opened it up, and you were in the area above the stage. It was catwalks, and you could walk on the catwalk, because that’s where they would adjust the lights that were shining down on the stage.
I just remember crawling out there and seeing a concert. But all you could see was the top of the person’s head, and their shoulders, because it was directly on top of the stage.
It was a kind of magical place. When they evicted everybody, Tod and I were actually in India working on a project, and our son, Kai, who had moved out a long time ago, went to spend one last night there. So for him it has, I’m sure, very powerful memories of time and place.
SB: It makes me think about this story, or the book you were mentioning [The Borrowers], with the people between the floorboards, only in this case, they’re humans.
BT: In between, of the cracks of things!
SB: I wanted to bring up a few projects before we finish. One thing that’s so important to me thinking about your firm’s work is the psychology of space. And I got into this subject on another episode of Time Sensitive, with Ivy Ross, who’s a VP of hardware design at Google. She’s really interested in this notion of neuroaesthetics: how we respond to space, how we respond to art, how it makes us feel. Do you think about that in your work? And I’m asking this in the context of the fact that one of your earliest projects is the Neurosciences Institute [now the Scripps Research Institute] in La Jolla, California. I just can’t help but think that there must have been some thinking around that intersection of neuroscience [and architecture], or even neuroaesthetics.
BT: The client for that project is no longer alive, but a brilliant, and probably very difficult man, but I thought he was hysterically funny. His name was Gerald Edelman, and he won a Nobel Prize [in Physiology or Medicine in 1972] for his work. He very much talked about the sort of neural connections, and how when you do something that you enjoy, you start to make synapses between certain [things]—I’m talking as if I have any idea of what I’m talking about—and they’re strengthened. He very much believed that things like music, and simply walking through beauty, made connections, synaptic connections, which strengthened your own potential research work.
So when we worked on that project, he said, “I want you to make it beautiful, but if it’s not beautiful, it should be interesting.” It’s like, Okay, that’s a pretty good dictum to try to follow. And he said, ”And I want people to [do] like the monks did in the monasteries, that it’s not exactly a walk around the courtyard. But for people to be able to walk, and think, and I want to have an auditorium that is acoustically designed for chamber music.” It was an amazing experience. And, of course, we designed wet labs, and all the other sorts of spaces, the technical spaces, that support that research. But these other parallel synaptic connections [that], I think, continue to influence us, because if it’s not beautiful, it should be interesting. How can you move through a space in a way that lets you think? It continues.
SB: Another early project that’s significantly lesser known that you did is called “Quiet Light,” with the [Isamu] Noguchi Foundation [and Garden Museum]. And I wanted to bring this up because you actually, I understand, met Noguchi, spent time with him in his studio in Long Island City before the studio itself became a museum. And in 1994, Tod and you put on this akari show [at the former gallery in New York’s Takashimaya department store] with them, where you designed this installation of fiberglass screens. That whole project is really about celebrating light, and celebrating these light forms. And I can’t help but think it also probably was a way for you to explore somehow this Asian American connection. Could you talk about how that particular installation and project also, similar to this Neurosciences Institute, informed a lot of your later thinking, or your later work?
BT: We did get to meet Noguchi. It’s not as if we were good pals or anything, but we were invited to his studio, and we had lunch.
Like so many designers, we were really drawn to the akari, the lamps. And it was interesting to learn more about the akari. When he first made them, I think he was criticized [for the project] being a kind of popularization, a cheapening of [his] sculpture. But this idea of art and use, which you spoke about in the very beginning, is something that is at the heart of architecture. After he died, we were asked by [Lynn Gumpert, the former curator of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery,] to do an installation that would travel. It needed to be light, which, of course, the lights themselves are very light. You know, if you buy them, you buy them in a really flat box. They weigh nothing. They cost a lot now. Before, I think, when he first made them, they were inexpensive. Now they’re insanely expensive, but insanely beautiful.
And so this idea of trying to make something that would show the akari, but not so much as objects so clearly defined, but more as an essence of light. That’s why this idea of the fiberglass screens came, because it’s, once again, a slow reveal. It’s like, How do you understand the essence of it without seeing the thing of it? The screens allowed you to look through, but you couldn’t see it clearly, and it was slightly distorting. But you could see the shape. And the shape is actually the incredible thing about the light.
A person who we also were able to work with before she died was Trisha Brown. She was a choreographer and dancer. And one of the pieces that I love the most is called “If You Couldn’t See Me.”
What I loved about that piece was that she never turned around to face the audience. I mean, she had the most amazing back muscles. Incredible back muscles. Her back said more than many people’s faces said. But, you know, that was, to me, also a very powerful experience. This thing of, What do you see when you can’t see?
SB: I feel like I could go in so many directions right now, based on that statement. Because I think this idea of the slow reveal, in a way, which is what it sounds like that dance was also about, is at the heart of your work. I think about the [Philadelphia] Barnes Foundation project, I think about even the LeFrak Center [at Lakeside] in [Brooklyn’s] Prospect Park, and how it reveals itself, depending upon how you’re walking toward it, or through it, or experiencing it, either as an onlooker, or as somebody actively skating on the ice or roller skating in the rink. It all leads me to wanting to talk to you about the Obama Presidential Center a little bit, which is really this project that’s geared toward teaching. It’s really about stories, about words. There are literally words inscribed on the building itself, or to be inscribed.
It’s somehow creating this idea of a building that will serve, certainly, as a landmark, but without being monumental. And I’m sure there’s a lot of thinking going on about, How do you capture the spirit of those eight years that Obama was in office in a building? It’s almost a memorial to those eight years. Could you speak to this, to the power of storytelling, of words, to the notion of memorializing eight years, and a building representing a person, but also being so much larger than that?
BT: Yeah. Well, I mean, I have to say, it’s our greatest honor, and I feel like it’s our greatest responsibility. At the same time, his presence is so much more than a building, in terms of what he hopes to accomplish there. So as you said, it’s very much about teaching. I think that it was very hard because it’s not in our nature to try to make buildings that are “iconic.” After we were chosen, which was an amazing experience—I remember that the [executive director] of the foundation called, and she told us, and I just started screaming. I didn’t even— And people in the office realized what it was. And everybody was screaming. It was like, not even words. It was just screaming.
So, we saw, after we were chosen—because it was a competition—the models that the other studios had done. And ours was the least iconic. It was very quiet. But over time, it became more clear that we needed to do something. And that wasn’t coming from him. It was coming from a sense that we needed to do something that, as hard as that was to be—because I don’t think you can go out and say, “I’m going to be iconic, and that’s my goal.” But we needed to do something that, even after he was gone, would stand as a symbol for that time, and who he represents to people all over the world. And it was sort of beyond him, because he kept on saying, “I’m happy with a desk. I can just sit with everybody else”—which, no, for many reasons he can’t sit at a public desk with everybody else.
And he also was clear that he saw the center—because it’s called a center, not a library—as a living place, and not as a memorial to the eight years, but as a place that would train young people in civic engagement so that they could go out and make changes in the world. He always has talked about standing on the shoulders of others. And he was talking about having this be a place where people learn to stand on whatever shoulders he can provide, and provide other shoulders.
SB: I just love this idea, while we’re on this, of time, and knowing that, on some level, those eight years represent all the time that it took President Obama to get to where he was, to achieve those eight years, and how those eight years are going to impact generations to come. That this is an active site of engagement that is carrying history forward in a way that respects, represents, looks back beyond. It’s not this totemic idea of, “And then there was Obama.” It’s this idea of: “All of this history led to those eight years, and those eight years are leading to this future.”
BT: Exactly. And I think that’s really exactly what it’s meant to do. There’s a capsule there, that is the eight years, but the whole story starts way before him, in terms of the way they tell the story in the exhibit. And then what happens on the ground is the future, is how things extend into the future. Rather than a memorial, it’s an extremely hopeful, optimistic project.
SB: And I think recent history has shown us in so many ways what can happen if we ignore certain facets of history, and truth, and common good.
BT: Yeah. I mean, I think it is a lesson that history is not a straight line. It’s a real winding path. And sometimes you go backwards, with no guarantee that you’re going to go forward again. I think that the center is conceived of as a place where people will learn how to start to move forward.
SB: It’s a center that literally centers.
BT: [Laughs] Yeah.
SB: My last question I want to ask is about historic preservation, which is directly tied into what we’re discussing, and this idea of how to reinvigorate something that exists, and/or integrate something new into an existing site or place. How do you think about historic preservation in your own work? And, you know, I’m thinking of the Hood Museum at Dartmouth [College], for example. And in that context, it’s like the literal built world, but then how do you think about historic preservation also in this conversation we were just having, which is about the social fabric, about society at large?
BT: I’m thinking about ways of sort of kneading those two things together that you just put out there. I think in the work that we do, when we work with existing buildings—and I think it will become more and more a part of an architectural practice. It’s a lot harder. It’s a lot harder to respect, and then understand, what makes sense to change in something that’s existing.
So in respect of the Dartmouth project: Charles Moore was the architect. He was actually my thesis advisor when I was at UCLA, and his work has always been known as quirky and idiosyncratic. It would have been easier to just tear a lot of stuff down, and rebuild new.
Some people would say that we tore some stuff down that shouldn’t have been torn down, but I think we took the time to really understand the character, and what was the sort of central core of what he was trying to do there. Then we actually rebuilt it, because it was not constructed that well, and was having really bad problems. So there are parts there that are exactly what he did, but they’ve been totally rebuilt—you can’t see where they’ve been rebuilt. It’s like mending something. It’s a lot easier to buy a new sweater, but if you truly do a good job of mending, then you don’t see where the mend begins and ends. It continues the texture and the weave.
SB: Or sometimes [it’s] like kintsugi—it becomes more beautiful by showing the cracks.
BT: Yeah. Exactly. Which is truly, it’s a kind of art that I love, because it accepts the fact that … of where, which is very, very important. I think the same thing is true for extending a kind of social vision. It’s frustrating, and I’m glad that, in many ways, we work on the physical expression of that aspiration, because the kind of work that it takes to…. The nuance, the understanding, the mending of a social fabric, requires a kind of obsessive energy, which we’ve chosen to focus in architecture, but there are wonderful people that are—and Obama is really one—interested in social mending. I mean, much more generous.
And I know—it’s hardly as if we’re good pals and buddies with him—but I know that even in the sort of writing that [he and Michelle Obama have] both done, that they’re human beings, that they’re angry, that they’re frustrated. But he really does believe, and the center is an expression of the belief, that you need to mend the social fabric. And for me, who goes back to the Great Wall of China, and anger, I still hold a lot of anger about things that have happened in the recent past, and things that are happening now. But his overriding belief is that you need to put that energy into that mending. And so, I hope that what we do with the center is to make a place for that social mending to happen.
SB: And I hope we see more architecture in general that does the same. Billie, it was so great to have you on today. Thanks for coming in.
BT: I have to say that you make it very easy to sit in this chair for a long period of time to answer these questions. And I would also say that I love this chair because my feet touch the ground.
SB: [Laughs] That’s great. Well, and I hope the listeners felt like they were here with us.
BT: Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on April 8, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. This episode was produced by our managing director, Mike Lala, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.