Hubert Burda Media

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien: the power of two

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are the architects behind some of the world's best-loved cultural institutions. The husband-and-wife team tell us about their career highs and lows so far – and explain their hopes for the future.

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Photo: Jason Smith

In a city packed with silvery skyscrapers, the Asia Society Hong Kong Center sticks out like a sore thumb. Or rather, it doesn’t stick out at all, which is exactly the point. Instead, the low-lying and angular building sits unobtrusively and elegantly in Hong Kong’s hilly landscape, its expanses of glass reflecting the surrounding greenery while effortlessly complementing the historic buildings that occupy the same site. It’s subtle where the surrounding skyscrapers are glitzy; serene where the other buildings are brash.

New York-based architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are the creative minds behind this cultural oasis in the heart of the city. A husband-and-wife team who run their eponymous studio from an office overlooking Central Park, the couple specialise in designing buildings for cultural and educational institutions and have made a name for themselves with projects such as the Barnes Foundation, the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at The University of California, Berkeley and the extension of the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona.

The Asia Society’s Hong Kong outpost, then, was a perfect fit for the studio. But Williams and Tsien still had to fight for the job. “It was a competition and there were three firms that participated. Sanaa Architects, who are out of Tokyo, Elías Torres and José Martínez, who are out of Barcelona, and us,” Tsien explains. “We were happy because we also happen to be very close friends with Elías Torres, so we saw this as a competition among friends. We did models and made a presentation and we all said, ‘Whoever wins, we’ll treat the other teams to dinner.’”

The Asia Society Hong Kong Center

The Asia Society Hong Kong Center

Williams and Tsien did, of course, win the competition. But a shadow fell over their celebrations that no one could have predicted. “The interviews took place in Hong Kong on September 11, 2001,” Tsien says. “We were at dinner, at a large Chinese round table, and people started looking at their cell phones and saying, ‘My brother was just on the Brooklyn Bridge and a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.’”

“It was certainly a more bitter than sweet day,” Williams adds. “But it deepens the spirit. Events like that change you. You either become more fearful or you recognise that understanding across cultures and around the world is ever more important. I do think it makes the Asia Society all the more potent if it’s a way by which one can actually shift the source of power from New York to Hong Kong and recognise that there are centres that exist around the world and that we’re all connected.”

The Asia Society Hong Kong Center is perhaps a textbook example of Williams and Tsien’s aesthetic. Sleek and low-rise, the building houses a series of bright, minimalist spaces. Throughout the institute there’s a clear emphasis on materials, almost all of which the architects sourced locally to ensure that the restoration of the old buildings and construction of the new centre were as authentic as possible. 

On top of their obsession with materials and light, Williams and Tsien have made a point of creating buildings that are environmentally friendly, most famously displayed in their work on the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Originally a house museum founded in 1922 by chemist Albert C Barnes, the foundation was moved from Barnes’ former home to the Williams and Tsien-designed space in 2012. Just like the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, the mechanics of the Barnes Foundation are buried below ground, which leaves the slick yet boxy building sitting tastefully unencumbered in front of the Philadelphia skyline.

But the most impressive aspects of the Barnes Foundation are its environmental credentials. As well as using primarily local materials, the architects also incorporated a green roof and a series of ingenious permeable surfaces that allow rainwater to be absorbed and reused elsewhere in the building, all of which contributed to the Barnes Foundation becoming one of the first institutions to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification. “We always would encourage our clients that we want to do the very best we can to be as gentle as we can on the landscape and on the environment,” Williams explains.

The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Yet not everyone subscribes to the couple’s caring, delicate approach to their surroundings. This was brutally underlined when New York’s Museum of Modern Art (Moma) razed the Williams and Tsien-designed American Folk Art Museum, which was standing in the way of Moma’s expansion. Although Moma has preserved the building’s bronze facade, the demolition provoked public criticism from architecture critics Paul Goldberger, Justin Davidson and Robert AM Stern, as well as prompting The New York Times to label Moma “the museum with a bulldozer’s heart.”

“It was devastating and it still hurts terribly,” Williams admits. “We think it’s really too bad for the Museum of Modern Art, too bad for the city of New York, too bad for the idea of architecture as a meaningful and valuable form of art, too bad for the idea of differences in a city – the preservation of layers of differences, the palimpsest of time and of place.

“I think that the larger problem is actually not the one that hurts us. We may never get over it but I’m sorry, it’s a studio – it’s relatively few people. I think it’s too bad for the spirit of the city and I honestly can see that many, many young people were affected by it and felt it was wrong.”

Despite this distressing turn of events, Williams and Tsien remain committed to the idea of architecture as a force for good. “We’re working on the American Embassy for Mexico City, a very, very large project,” Williams says. “A terribly important project because the intention is to try not to show the American Embassy as a foreign fortress in the middle of another country but to sit as gently and comfortably in that city as possible.

“It’s a special challenge to be in another country and try to do the responsible and correct thing. If I look back at the Asia Society, I feel like we did that there. I’m hoping we can do as well in Mexico. We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure that humanity is sewn together in a proper and rich way.”