Conversation: Annabelle Selldorf with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien

Frieze Masters, London. Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

Tod Williams: The tent you designed for Frieze Masters, which opened last week [October 11-14], is beautiful. How do you approach a project like that?

Annabelle Selldorf: I think it always starts with, what is the task and what is the setting? It seemed to me that if a given condition is a tent, like it was here, then you have to embrace that. And what are the possibilities in a tent? You get diffused daylight. That had to inform everything. Having been to many fairs, I know that people use all these crazy colors, like the old master dealers want dark green or crimson red. And so I said, let’s level the playing field. Dealers could only use four colors on the walls in their booths: white, light gray, medium gray, and dark gray. [Laughter] Some people said that we dictated it in a Stalinist manner. It wasn’t a polemic though. I thought about this very carefully, because I do a lot of work in the art world. I thought that an old master paintings dealer could deal with a medium gray if it’s the right kind of gray. So we offered this selection and it really did work for everybody. The next thing I wanted was for the booths to be real spaces that dealers could do something with. So there was an architectural construct on the inside of the fair and everybody had an opportunity to be completely individual, because the idea was to not make all the booths the same. The idea was really to just create a sense of calm and a context for the viewer in which looking at very diverse things was not distracting. They’re all very small moves. We were taking away rather than adding elements. I think in the end that is really what was best.

TW: That’s a brilliant solution. It’s a lesson for all of us. This idea of leveling the playing field seems like just the right thing–calming the space, allowing traditional art to exist with more contemporary pieces. It focuses our attention on the art first, and then the dealer.

AS: Right. It’s something that I’ve always admired in your work and especially at the Barnes. I think that the coexistence of confident, simple architectural space that never competes or interferes or intrudes in the purpose of you being there, you did that so masterfully at the Barnes.

TW: Thank you, I appreciate that. I think we share this–the balance between confidence and purpose. The balance between the two has devloped over years of successes and failures. It comes from having made all the mistakes and realizing that the necessity to claim one’s territory is not as crucial as really creating the territory for others to exist.

Logan Center, University of Chicago. Photo: Tom Rossiter.

AS: I think that is exactly true. I always feel that in my own work. I get overwhelmed by the complexities and when I can’t understand it, I sort of will say, okay, just reduce it to what you can understand. And that makes for a little bit less to manage. But it is what’s quintessentially interesting: if you as an architect have confidence in the space itself, and it doesn’t have to interfere with the purpose, then all sorts of good things can happen. And that’s especially true in an art environment. I read a couple of days ago on ArtInfo about your project in Chicago [the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago]. I was struck that ArtInfo described the art center as conservative. I kept looking at the images and thinking, what the hell do they mean? I wondered what that means to you because I certainly couldn’t make what I was looking at congruent with the term.

TW: I suppose the word conservative needn’t align with politics. Relative to the University of Chicago project, and it’s also true with the Barnes, we might be seen as conservative in that we feel that one of our responsibilities is to have a respect for the place. Even if we want to challenge certain aspects, we ultimately try to embrace the context. At the University of Chicago, we wanted to relate to the original campus architecture on the north side of the Plaisance even as we developed an architecture appropriate to the more modern south side. I would claim that this approach is conservative in a good way.

AS: Is it?

TW:  Yes, it means that we want to conserve the sense that you’re in a specific place. When we make a building for an institution our intention is to make it last for many, many years and for it to be loved and valued for that amount of time. That is a conservative value. Inside, I would say there’s another conservative aspect. Each of the building users, some remarkable visual and performing art department heads, had spent years longing for a particular kind of space that would cater to their needs, be it practicing, teaching, or performing. They wanted us to deliver that space in exactly the way they required. And even as we challenged those preconceptions, we took very, very seriously all of their thoughtful considerations and desires.

Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (1945-1962), Gagosian Gallery, London. Installation by Selldorf Architects. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

AS: In a way, what you’re talking about is what I think is quintessentially important, but what gets undervalued, which is the understanding and internalizing of the information, of the requirements, of a project. As far as I’m concerned, that is what always creates the parti. There is a sort of problem-solving phase, and you say, well, there are only so many ways in which you can solve it. And then, architectural space emerges as a result.

TW: Yes – listening! I used to think that having my own voice heard was often the most important. And now I realize that I am confident in my voice. So what emerges in both the Barnes and in Chicago are buildings that are specific to the place and to the requirements but are also a result of our own vision. Another thing that we’ve come to learn is to carefully listen to the constraints of the budget. We know a great deal about building, we know something about materials, and we know enough about managing resources. Architects are synthesizers. We fuse our understanding of where materials are sourced, how they may be put together in practical and beautiful ways, and how the client and contractor’s needs might be gently honored. You’re listening not just to the person who’s giving you the program but the needs of the person who’s building it. You listen to what materials tell you as well and if the stone won’t speak , the quarrier will. Your tent for Frieze seems to be a perfect example. You knew that they required a tent whose precise form you didn’t know but you had already accepted the premise of the tent and the potential power of the tent, which is its translucency. And all you said, as far as I can tell, is, “I want to shroud the interior so that the structure is secondary and the basic tent form and the translucency is primary.” Brilliant! You understood the tent was a fixed requirement and appreciated its strengths and weaknesses. You said, “Okay, within this there are variables that when handled thoughtfully can serve the users needs and produce a place of serene beauty.”

Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Photo: Michael Moran

AS: In an obviously much, much more complex and sophisticated way, I feel that that is what you did with the Barnes. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, considering all the controversy that surrounded that project. What people talked about was the dictate of the precise form and shape of the space. And by and large, you came around to just accepting it and saying, “That’s not so bad because it served somebody really well.” I’ve listened to the conversations about the size of the moldings and the shape of the moldings and all of that. What I love about this project is that it’s from the sublime to the ridiculous. In a way, it surprised me that so much of what I heard was about the bloody cornice and that the hanging was identical and that the width to height to whatever was the same. But the project is so much more than that because it really invites people to do what they came to do and more. That you can offer that and embrace all sorts of urban design gestures in terms of how the building is sited and how it’s accessed and the various spaces that you go through–not least of which is having what I think is one of the most gorgeous public “squares” in front of the actual exhibition galleries–I think it is simply marvelous. That is something that I think you need to talk about because it’s always easy to say the mandate was X, Y, Z, and that’s the path you take and you embrace the budget and you listen carefully to this and that. But there is a lot more.

Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Photo: Michael Moran

TW: For us the “ridiculous” was definitely the set of requirements that demanded that everything at the Barnes be precisely as it was –that’s a kind of straitjacket. So the immediate question is. how do I escape? And if escape is not possible,then the only course is acceptance.  For us, accepting the constraints re-directed our energies to focus elsewhere. That’s how the light court became possible. It evolved slowly because at first we were satisfied by the simple answer, “Okay, we’ve created the place for the art work.” We didn’t realize that actually freed us to speculate on a space which didn’t exist in Merion. We realized that once you left the galleries what was missing was a place to be. We needed to create a room that could be generous, as generous as the landscape was in Merion. That was a eureka moment. I love wrestling with issues and taking the time to sort these things through, because I trust the process. And I trust that the longer the process goes, the closer we get to…well, as you said, closer to discarding the unnecessary and getting to the necessary.

AS: Well, that’s the troubling reality, no? It’s that you are rarely given more time to sort things out. I think that I’m now getting to be Stonehenge–I’m so slow. I notice how everybody around me seems to just absorb everything and translate it into a PowerPoint presentation or something. [Laughter] I think that that’s the biggest dilemma in hearing you talk about how the truth reveals itself: it takes time.

TW: Recently, I spoke to a group of high school students about growing up. As a young person, I felt very unformed, kind of blob-like. Possibilities are everywhere and I could fall in love with anything and everything at any moment. As you mature you think about the things you want to take on; equally important is choosing what not to do. So we shape ourselves two ways, and we shape every problem two ways. Though the speed with which the world moves too often demands that we must produce instant answers. Technology gives us the incredible power of quick imagery. It’s better in my opinion to have a vague idea of where you’re going because the answer must emerge in time. It begins to take shape both by determining what not to do, what you must subtract from it, and what you must add.

AS: I think what is so interesting is that you’re constantly confronted with your own opinions. I think I was born the most opinionated person in the world and it’s the thing that I constantly have to fix because you get further by not being angry about somebody else’s reaction or your inability to get a budget, get a project, convince somebody of something. I’m still very opinionated but I think as a process it’s always helped me to sort of step away and consider what other people think.

TW: If you respect that everyone has something to offer, then eventually,by listening to them, you can help them define the best quality they can bring to any situation, and maybe some to leave behind.

[Billie Tsien joins the conversation]

AS: We got on to talking about the personal journey. [Laughter] Is it possible to talk about the Folk Art Museum?

TW: Sure.

AS: Because to me there is still lots to resolve. I don’t know whose task it is to resolve, presumably it’s MoMA’s.

American Folk Art Museum. Photo: Michael Moran

Billie Tsien: I think it’s MoMA’s. When we first heard about [the decision to sell the building] from the president of the board [of the Folk Art Museum], we were actually in Europe and it was on a phone call. So, it was as if somebody decides they’re going to divorce you and they call you on a cell phone to tell you. [Laughter] We thought, “How could this be happening?” But I think you’re absolutely right. Everything is unresolved and I believe probably the Museum of Modern Art would prefer to keep things opaque.

AS: That’s clear. I had a terribly unpleasant conversation about it and I was absolutely shocked by how unforthcoming they are.

TW: Let’s look at the circumstances. MoMA has two forces pulling at it: its desire to continue to thrive and thus the need for money and space. And it’s already been decided that one of the ways by which they’ll going to grow is through real estate development. A close partner with them on this new project is the developer. And the developer only has a marginal interest in the issue of art. So I do believe that it is solely MoMA’s issue to resolve. They are the ones who have the spine and should have the ethos behind what they do to make a judgment as to whether the building should be kept and incorporated or demolished. If MoMA chooses to demolish the Folk Art Museum, it would be profoundly irresponsible relative to their mission.

AS: I think that’s always a big issue, and it’s a very a personal issue. I say this as a New Yorker. I think we have to be terribly vigilant to not just let that happen. I saw this morning–only briefly–Michael Kimmelman’s article about the Prentice Women’s Hospital and a proposal by Jeanne Gang to preserve it by building on top of it.

TW: Interesting. I haven’t seen it yet. There may be ways that these buildings can be saved. But if you’re going to save it, you need to maintain the essence and improve it even as it is transformed…And I don’t say it’s an easy task. If the Folk Art Museum is to be removed, and let’s say Nouvel is the architect who is to replace it, he needs to produce a much better work of architecture, something great, truly great.

BT: I think it’s a question though of whether the museum thinks stewardship is an important part of their mission. And if it is, then it’s not a matter of whether Nouvel can build a better building. I think it’s a matter of responsibility to the profession and to the history of architecture.  Are you a steward or are you a real estate developer?

TW: I agree. But in the case of the hospital in Chicago, it’s less clear as to how the hospital can be a steward of architecture.

BT: That’s not their job.

AS: Really? It’s not their job? I would have thought that it’s everybody’s job. And I think that that’s a really very important distinction to make.

BT: The point is, the hospital doesn’t claim that that’s their purview, whereas the Museum of Modern Art claims that it is their purview. So, it’s true that inherently it’s their responsibility as citizens in the world, but I think it’s not their responsibility as defined by their mission. And so that’s where I see there’s a really big conflict of interest with MoMA. What is your mission?

AS: Well, I think it’s heading for conflict. I think it all will have to come to a head and I think that everybody has to be very, very attentive to where this is going.

This conversation took place on October 18, 2012.