Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners

Ana Miljački chats with Tod and Billie of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects about the contrasts of institutional versus commercial projects, developing relationships with clients, and finding meaning in work.

Recorded on December 21, 2021. Read a transcript of the episode below.

About Tod Williams and Billie Tsien

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien founded their firm in 1986. Since 2013, it has also included a third partner, Paul Schulhof. Hovering around 30 employees, the firm focuses on working for cultural, academic, and nonprofit organizations. It has designed numerous carefully made, important buildings in the US and elsewhere, for which it has received over two dozen AIA awards, as well as many other accolades, including the 2013 AIA Architecture Firm Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Brunner Memorial Prize, The Architectural League of New York President’s Medal, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture, the Chrysler Award for Design Innovation, and the National Endowment for the Arts National Medal of Arts in 2014. The firm is currently working on the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago.

About I Would Prefer Not To

Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.


Transcript lightly processed and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.

Ana Miljački: [0:20] Hello, and thank you for tuning in. I am Ana Miljački, professor of architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab. And on behalf of The Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled I Would Prefer Not To.

I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes: refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, refusals stay hidden from public scrutiny, and thus also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind tend not to leave paper trails and are not easy to examine or learn from. And yet the lessons contained in architects’ deliberations about and decisions not to engage are politically relevant and urgent. Decisions to not engage a commission, or types of commissions, or commissions with certain characteristics, inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily.

My guests in this episode are Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the two founding partners of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Thank you for joining me today.

After working together for nearly a decade, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien founded their firm in 1986, which has since 2013 also included a third partner, Paul Schulhof. The firm, hovering around 30 employees, has been focusing on working for cultural, academic, and not-for-profit organizations. They are architects of numerous carefully made, important buildings in the U.S. and elsewhere, for which they have received over two dozen AIA awards, as well as many other major accolades. Tod and Billie have also been active participants in the academic and cultural communities and maintain longstanding associations with numerous organizations devoted to the arts. Both are fellows of the American Academy in Rome, have been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, into the National Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. They have just completed their work on the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids and are currently working on the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago.

We may address today some of the recent and future work of the firm, but we will begin that by talking about the work that is not on the boards or in studio’s portfolio. By discussing at what point is a commission not worth it? What kind of line gets drawn with the decision to forfeit the possibility of work and how such decisions are made as Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

So Tod and Billie, let’s start with how and when you decided and articulated to yourselves and your office that you would pursue certain kinds of work over others.

Tod Williams: [3:24] I think it goes way back, Ana, because I think the moment we really decided to be partners, we had to discuss how we were going to work together. And I think that basic discussion means that Billie and I want to work on all projects together, we want to work with one another. Therefore, the agreement has to come with who we are and what we, what we believe in.

I personally have long felt that as a man with . . . growing up in a man’s world, young man’s world, with almost everything . . . I had way too many options at my fingertips. And early on, I believed that the best way for me to—I say, early on: after college—to, in a way, begin to form myself, was to determine what I would not do, because so many things seemed possible, and so many things seemed delightful. Not all of which would be good for me.

Billie Tsien: [4:28] As we start to talk, I also wanted to emphasize that it’s not as if people come to us and say, “You. We only want you.” So it is more about choosing, I think, not to sort of pursue a project than turning down a commission that somebody’s dropped in our laps, because the dropping doesn’t happen.

And I would also say that some of this also has to do with some early experiences. It’s like with a, with a, when you . . . once you have a really bad boyfriend, you learn to sniff out the really bad boyfriends in the future. And so it’s a kind of learning process. So I don’t think it’s immediately like, you know, “This is, this is what we set out to do, and this is, we’re not doing this.” It’s more like you’re, in the beginning, you’re trying, you’re doing these different things, and some things you just feel feed you, and, and make you feel good about what you’re doing, and other things just make you feel terrible. And so that’s a lot of how we, I think, started to focus on, really, work for people whose values we shared.

Williams: [5:46] I don’t think it first started that way, though, Billie. When we first started working together, you were just out of school and in your twenties and me in my thirties. And I think that we were looking for almost any job. I mean, the jobs that we could get were, were commercial jobs, interiors. And in fact, for the first ten years of our lives, we basically did only—our lives together and working—we basically did only interiors. And the work was good work. It paid well, and we loved it, and we grew, and it was valuable work.

But around ten years in, we began to see that even the best work we could give would be removed when, with the change of an economic wind, a firm who had done a trading office, even a decent trading office, with good people, would grow and would trash their desks. That was extremely upsetting, because we designed them. Or a small shop that we did, which we so loved, went out of business and was, disappeared.

So we began to determine that some jobs that we even liked were, wounded us in a particular way, because we were giving too much to them. And so when we began to get projects that were for clients with more durable and continuing projects, I think we began to wean ourselves away from those that felt that they were going to go, likely to disappear.

Tsien: [7:16] Well, I think that, but I, I disagree somewhat. Because I think that there are residential projects that we took on, and as we move through them, we realized, we actually didn’t connect to those people, and they were terrible, terrible.

Williams: [7:33] I don’t . . . I disagree with you completely. I mean, look, mostly, for the most part, I’m the one that prefers to do residential work. Billie has a low tolerance for people who . . .  for certain kinds of people.

Miljački: [7:47] I was going to ask you if you aligned on whatever the answer you gave me. So I actually like how the answer is, is in a way accruing through the different things you’re saying. But so what I’m gathering, in a way, is that there were certain decisions you made proactively about where you wanted the practice to go. And then there were some also that were obviously, or from Billie’s answer, that are, or were, lessons from engaging the discipline. And so I’m wondering if we can, if we can sort of list, maybe, some of the circumstances in which you feel you cannot “leave a good mark upon the Earth,” which is a quote from one of your interviews.

Williams: [8:36] We only want to make good marks on the Earth, but whether we’ve made those good marks is another matter, and I’ll leave it for others. But why don’t you start with a couple of examples, Billie?

Tsien: [8:52] It’s difficult, because I, clearly . . . And this answer is going to put down people that work, or the people that we choose not to work for. But I would say each architect and each studio needs to make its own decisions. So we’ve chosen not to work on development projects. And that is because development projects are primarily there to make money. And that’s never been . . . I mean, obviously, it’s a value. We’ve been in business for a long time. We pay everybody. We’ve never sort of not paid them. But it’s not a value that pushes . . . you know, moves your soul.

Williams: [9:38] Yeah, well, we do, we have, however, done private homes for developers. So how do you want to justify that?

Tsien: [9:46] Well, it’s not. It’s you know, as I said, I’m not loving the private houses so much, but as well, it’s not . . . They were not doing it to sort of reap a profit.

Williams: [9:58] Well, I don’t … I have different reason for not doing development work. Because I actually, I love all work. But I do think, again, it can be soul sapping, that the decisions are so often made, not, I don’t . . .  That someone makes money on it is not, for me, a problem. I want them to be a good person and I’d like to work for people who are good people and people I respect. And I believe many of them are those people with good values. I simply don’t want to work on something where every single decision is made because of a decision that relates to the economics. It needs to be a balance of things that are, that feel noble, more noble, and things that feel, you know, obviously done to expedite a problem. So I’m less concerned. I just felt, in the end, it’s, can be soul sapping. And I will say, let me, there are there are certain people and certain developers we wouldn’t work for in any way.

Miljački: [11:02] I mean, I would, of course, like more specifics, but I can pose this also more positively, as a kind of, what are the circumstances in which you feel you can do the work that you enjoy doing, and your best work?

Williams: [11:18] Again, I would have said the support, the support of the owner, the . . . we can do our best work when we share similar values to the owner. I’ll give you an example where we did choose to do commercial work, and it surprised me. It was working for Ratan Tata in India. We broke our rule there. We’re not particularly interested in working abroad, though under the right circumstances we would. But in that case, we felt that this was a really wonderful human being who wanted to do something that would uplift the lives of the workers and gave us fair rein. And he was very, very . . . He comforted us with his support. He sent us, said “Go look in India, travel around and see what you think can be inspired by.” And I thought that was something that lifted us up. And I don’t think . . . most developers wouldn’t do that.

Tsien: [12:20] Well, you know, I mean, it was a sort of campus where people were basically writing software, coding. But it was also a campus that had an historic basis because it was one of the last few big green areas. There had been a factory on the site that was still in metropolitan Mumbai, and he chose not to overbuild it, but really to make the landscape, and the incredible sort of trees that were very old, part of what was going on—you know, the heart of the campus. So it’s focused on a kind of, more . . . it’s like caretaking of a, of something that becomes ever more rare and dear.

Williams: [13:16] And we were allowed to use local materials and so on and so forth. So I believe we make a rule, and then we break it.

Sometimes we make mistakes, you know . . .

Tsien: A lot of times.

Miljački: [13:27] I mean, are there are there any commissions that you worked on and took and then wished you didn’t?

Tsien: [13:35] There are times when we have been in the running for something and we have pulled out. And that’s because we really, can’t . . . because we want to be involved in all the projects in the office. We don’t, we try to be careful about how many projects we take on. And so there are projects that we, in hindsight, regret, “Oh, it would have been great, let’s say, to work on the competition that Grafton won in Peru.”

Williams: Yeah, which we were asked to . . .

Tsien: But we felt like, Oh, well, this is . . . We, we can’t do this because we need to be able to pay attention to what we have rather than go after something else. So sometimes . . .

Williams: Certainly, competitions, yeah.

Tsien: Because we’re trying to limit. I mean, we’re just trying to understand what we can do.

Williams: [14:31] Another kind of project we’ve chosen not to do is restaurants. Again, that’s commercial. Actually, it’s extremely interesting work, but I feel that it requires an expertise and a sort of, a lightness of, a speed which we probably can’t easily track. So. And again, they don’t last that long. They’re fascinating because they’re so socially interesting, and a great chef would be very, very interesting to work for. But we’ve, we try to avoid those, and the only ones we’ve done are when they’re connected with an institution and they’re really not . . . they’re, they should be there to make money, but they tend not to make money. They’re there as a kind of an amenity. For example, at the Barnes, we did the restaurant there and I was very happy, but I don’t really regard it as a restaurant. They would like to make a lot more money with it, so I apologize to you, at the Barnes, but we decided that we would want something that was beautiful and generous rather than something was necessarily going to be commercially viable.

Miljački: [15:48] Maybe this is a good moment to ask you about the slowness article from the ’90s, which I found on your on your website. And I found it really fun. Certainly descriptive of a way of working. And I feel like you’re invoking some aspects of it as you’re, as you’re answering. And I’m wondering if it’s still, if you feel it still applies, kind of slowness of work.

Tsien: [16:18] I think in a way it does apply. I think it’s, we’re working faster now. Of course, we’re not using those tools. They’re gone. You know, young, the students that we teach don’t even know what they are. But that’s OK.

Williams: It’s not OK.

Tsien: Well, let me finish. So it, we’ve found that, essentially amongst our colleagues we’re somewhat strange because we do all the design and we do all the construction documents and then we supervise. And the way the profession is going now, most quote “design firms” design and then the construction documents go someplace else and somebody else supervises. So I think that that’s not . . . what we’re doing is not the most efficient, and so therefore it is more slow. But that’s the way we do it. So I think that that makes us slower office in the world of today.

Williams: [17:26] Yeah, and that works relatively well. Not entirely well, with many institutions who have to raise money. We say we’re the dog-and-pony show. We can go and, you know, put our cup out and help them raise money. We prefer to have a longer-term relationship, and that, again, weans out certain institutions, and it attracts others. So I do think that it’s a way of defining yourself.

Tsien: [17:56] And it also, I think, reduces the number of projects you can take on. You know, there, because, you know, when you make a commitment, it’s like, you know, a five-year commitment, a 10-year commitment. In fact, in the case of India, it was like a 16-year commitment.

Miljački: [18:15] You mentioned in an email to me, Tod, that you find refusal as a question to, or as a kind of problematic, too negative, or maybe a kind of, it has a negative connotation, and you preferred the idea of forging a right relationship, which you now invoked again as you were both answering. And so, I’m wondering if you could describe what makes a relationship with the client right?

Williams: [18:44] Well, I feel that’s one of the, again, the problems of being a young man or a young girl today, which is that you, there’s a lot there that is of interest. At the same time, it’s relatively few people who say, “We’re actually truly interested in you and what you do.” So I’m always touched that anyone would actually care. Once that happens, I think it’s important to begin to sort out whether the relationship is a good one or not. So I don’t think you . . . to some extent, we’re making a mistake, I believe we make a mistake when we pre-sort relationships, like saying “We will not do any commercial work.” There’s something about that that is essentially obnoxious. I apologize. I know there’s something that’s wrong about that. Because actually, all we want is work. We love work, and we love working for other people.

Tsien: [19:42] We want work that feels meaningful to us. And so that’s where I was, where I was saying different kinds of work can feel meaningful to other people. We need to do work that is meaningful to us. And I think, among other things, we’re looking for as much of a personal connection with a client as possible.

Williams: [20:06] I just want to, really want to complain about what you just said.

Tsien: All right.

Williams: Well, I think it’s really terrible to say we want work that’s meaningful for us. I think, wouldn’t it be nice to say, and more correct to say, we want to do work that’s meaningful? And we want relationships that are good and deep? And leave it at that.

Tsien: [20:28] Well, yeah, OK.

Williams: [20:31] I mean, it’s just, important to me.

Tsien: [20:35] Well, you know, it’s interesting because I was just talking about this article in the Times about architects who are thinking about joining a union. And I was talking, actually, with the reporter, and I was saying that we don’t really keep hours, so we’re not really sure about what, you know . . . but we are in the same room. So we don’t have a timesheet, but we have a head sheet. You know, we sort of are kind of there, so we know if people are working too hard. But I think that, and this colleague was saying that some of those people felt like they the work they were doing, that they were doing the 60 hours a week, didn’t . . . they didn’t feel connected to it. They didn’t feel it was meaningful. So I think it’s important that it be meaningful to the person who’s working on that, as well as just meaningful.

Williams: [21:43] Sure. I accept that. I think it if it’s meaningful generally, and it should then be meaningful to the person who works on it. Absolutely agree.


Tsien: [22:12] I wanted to go back and address what are the qualities that you would hope in a relationship, because you said forming a kind of relationship. And I think a very, very important quality, and, is the quality that has, I think, helped us do some of our best work, is trust. So I think that, you know, it doesn’t happen immediately. You don’t trust somebody immediately, but over time that you, you trust the sort of good intention of the client, and they trust your sort of good intentions. That doesn’t mean that you agree. You can disagree a lot, but you all are working from the same set of intentions, and you trust each other. And that is probably the most gratifying situation with a client.

Williams: [23:12] I think you’re right. Of course, trust means entering the same room, I suppose, as the other person, and saying, “I trust that this will be fruitful.” But then I think you don’t immediately . . . that doesn’t earn you their trust. So I do think that time earns trust, and that’s extremely rewarding. And particularly when it remains throughout the job and beyond.

Miljački: [23:38] Do you feel that in sort of forging a relationship with a client, you also get transformed by their views and values?

Williams: [23:47] Always, always. And our work gets transformed by their work and values.

Tsien: Very much.

Williams: We, I think that I look back and I wonder, you know, why don’t we have a stronger style? I think it is absolutely because, first, we try to lose ourselves in the clients to the extent possible. Of course, we bring our values and we bring the quality of construction we want to have and sometimes many ways of thinking about space or light or materials. But I think that the exciting thing is, in fact, being transformed. Yeah.

Tsien: [24:22] And I would say another important aspect of the forming of the relationship is to agree upon the fact that you want the building to last a long time. I think it would be very hard to work for a client who felt that, you know, it’s like a 15-year life, a 20-year life. Yeah.

Miljački: [24:39] Mm-hmm. Thank you. I have a related question. Do you ever find your commitment to producing long-lasting, grounded, and loved architecture at odds with your desire to align with good, mission-driven organizations? Maybe this is a question about temporality of institutional transformations. And I ask it because I understand your commitment to groundedness and longevity of architecture to be pointing beyond specific institutional signals.

Williams: [25:17] You’re right, it absolutely does. And that’s why, again, it’s a little easier to work for an institution—which, generally they last, generally, longer than we do. And why it’s more comfortable to think of the client is that we’re all simply here, passing the baton on, including the client, and the institution is the thing that lasts longer. Of course, Mother Earth will last longer than any of us will. So you’re right. Does that make sense?

Tsien: [25:50] Yeah, I mean, it’s a place we always go to when we’re in Rome, it’s the Pantheon. It had some client somewhere, a lot of things happened to it, and people still love it. So it’s not that we imagine that we’re doing the Pantheon all the time, but certainly is the thing that we, you know, that’s the . . . you know, the sort of goal.

Williams: [26:13] Yeah. And, you know, working, let’s say, on the Obama presidential center. And we’ve often said we want to do a 100-year-building or 200-year-building. Well, in this case, I want it to be a 500-year-building, because I have to believe that the nation should last another 250 years, if . . .

Tsien: Knock on wood.

Williams: Well again, it’s knock on wood, but we’re, we’re trying to build for something that’s far beyond him, because I think that he recognizes that it’s what he does, the change that he makes, that will allow others to continue to change it. So it’s really not his building, it’s not a building for him, but represents the hope of the of all that went before and all that goes afterwards. So I think that’s a pretty good example of why.

Miljački: [26:58] Let me build on that answer with a question. You often work with cultural and academic institutions, and those, of course, often house the production of culture in some sense. But I’m wondering where and how you locate culture? Or can you talk a bit about how you embed and transmit cultural messages and content in your architectural work?

Williams: [27:25] We do believe in material culture. We believe in the handmade-ness of the world. It is, of course, seems to be made by machines, but it’s actually made by people, and technology seems to be able to make it. And we try to ground our work in, in a spectrum of possibilities that are, that feel connective—warm and cool are two of these things that we talk a lot about. And there’s no question about that. And we, we want to, if possible, connect to the particular place we’re in, by either the choice of material—not just because we don’t want to transport it so far, or there, for environmental reasons, but because we actually want to speak to that place. That’s why our building in Mexico City, our embassy there, I guess one senator from Kentucky felt that it was, there was something wrong with it because it looked too Mexican. The fact is that we were using, you know, built in Mexico City at a mile and a half altitude, it has a very, very different cultural way of living, not only because of the original people there, but the Spanish that came in. And so I do think we try to connect with that, and I think that that also should, and, I think it’s absolutely correct, as our neighbor, that we, we’re part of that too. They’re part of us. So I believe in this kind of trying to identify things that, identify in that project things that are clearly of Mexico and things that are clearly of America or the U.S.

Miljački: [29:14] Mm-Hmm. Did it ever seem like in a commission that attitude wouldn’t be possible? Or in a competition?

Williams: [29:25] I think, I do think, by the way, that competitions make it more difficult to do that. Because competitions look for instant answers, and those answers, if they’re accepted, winning a competition, it easily could be built. Which means that it’s not really in full conversation with that place and the client, but it rather comes because they’ve selected a design that’s independent of it, and that may be more intellectually interesting or visually interesting. So I think competitions are particularly dangerous relative to that. I don’t like competitions for that exact reason, only a competition to begin to get into dialog with the client.

Miljački: [30:13] I’m slowly getting you to answer the, about the conditions that seem like they might not enable the architecture you want to make, and therefore you would prefer not to.

Williams: [30:27] Yeah, prefer not to. Well, we engage in very, very few competitions. I’m sorry. No, both because we’re not very clever . . .

Tsien: Because we’re not asked [laughs].

Williams: No, but look—open competitions. We have we’ve shied away from them because in fact, the chances of winning is not only very, very low, but because, in fact, it feels academic. It seems like an exercise that’s done in a void too much. So frankly, I don’t like those kinds of things, and we don’t engage them, and I’m suspicious of all competitions because it doesn’t . . . it means you haven’t chosen the values, and the person, they haven’t chosen you. And once that’s been determined, then I think the work can begin. So yes, I . . . the whole idea of any competition concerns me.

Tsien: [31:21] Yet we’re discussing one tomorrow.

Williams: Yes.

Tsien: [Laughs] That’s a rule that’s there to be broken.

Miljački: [31:31] Uh-Huh. Yeah. Well, you know, good luck on it. I’m not gonna . . . We don’t have to, we don’t have to probe that one.

Williams: [31:38] Well I do start out saying no to most every . . . first I say yes to everyone, and then I say no. So I’m, it’s a kind of, I’m not sure whether no comes first or yes. But it certainly is, it is not a simple process with us.

Tsien: [31:53] Well, I mean, I think you are very honest when you said that before, that you felt uncomfortable with the kind of blanket statement that I was making, and you said it was more nuanced.

Miljački: [32:05] Do you have anything you would like to add to this?

Williams: [32:10] We have refused several jobs that I regret. I could name them. But I’m not unhappy. For example, we, I was asked to do a house for, uh, that Tom Phifer got, because I said, “We can’t do it.” And he did such a beautiful job and I realized, you know, as much as I . . . he did a better job than we could do. And it’s always nice to see when that happens. I will say.

There are other times I refused to do . . . Rick and Liz, years ago, a client came to us and I refused to do the job, and he went to Rick and Liz, and it became one of their early, early important . . .

Tsien: Theoretical projects.

Williams: Theoretical projects. It didn’t get built. But I don’t mind losing . . . making mistakes. Maybe they weren’t mistakes at all. They were probably perfect. I think that you don’t need to have everything in life and . . . And, of course, we need to have enough in life that keeps us nourished and excited, but I actually, I don’t regret the things that I’ve, the mistakes I’ve made. They’ve, they’ve helped form the way, help us make the next, make us to the next day.

Miljački: [33:31] You want to add something, Billie?

Tsien: [33:35] It’s not quite in line with, perhaps, this, you know, the sort of train of conversation, but I was thinking about your question about that, sort of culture manifesting itself in the work. And I think that people come first. So I think both in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish, in terms of the way we’re trying to run our studio, in terms of the way we think about materials, because we want to remind people, as Tod was saying that, you know, this was made by somebody. It wasn’t 3D printed. It was made by somebody. You know, that person lives on through the work. We’re all making something for other people. It’s about a connection with people, so the people part’s very important.

Miljački: [34:48] Thank you both for talking to me so candidly today. And listeners, thank you for listening to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.