Artists tend to eye architects with a certain degree of suspicion: The former clearly appreciate superlative design, but they are also often loath to share the spotlight. So when celebrated sculptor Martin Puryear asked Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to design his exhibition for the US Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, opening this month, the vote of confidence was high praise indeed.
The husband-and-wife architects, who have built a lofty reputation for their elegant problem-solving, have earned the trust not only of artists but also of museum and university boards and even a former POTUS. “It has taken a certain level of maturity to know when to embrace
the value of being quiet and when to be strong,” says Tsien, who cofounded Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in 1986. “And a strong quietness allows the art to be the primary presence.”
Their careful consideration can be seen in the recently unveiled Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, where they gracefully integrated a 1985 Charles Moore–Chad Floyd building with their new structure of gray brick, aluminum detailing and strategically placed windows, making the museum’s entrance more welcoming to the school’s epicenter, the Dartmouth Green. But the real prize in Williams and Tsien’s current portfolio is the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. (The 44th president also awarded both architects the National Medal of Arts in 2013, the year after their acclaimed, skylit Barnes Foundation opened in Philadelphia.) The pair beat out Renzo Piano, David Adjaye and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, among other heavyweights, for the commission in 2016. Their campus design includes a tower inspired by four disparate hands uniting in shared strength. Asked about the pressure to deliver on what may be the most heavily scrutinized project of their careers when it is completed in 2021, Tsien replies, “The Obamas have set the highest standard on all fronts, so yes, the pressure is high. But to be given the opportunity to make a home for these values is the project of a lifetime.”
In 2014, when the Museum of Modern Art controversially demolished Williams and Tsien’s much-beloved American Folk Art Museum to make way for its latest expansion, few doubted their resiliency, but everyone was rooting for them just the same. In the pair’s typically modest way, Tsien sums up their approach: “Every day we are excited, and every day we learn something new.”