Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Have Faith in Materials

Through a process of deep research and close collaboration, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien craft buildings of quiet power and profound tactility.

Photos courtesy TWBTA

In Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s design process, the quest for the perfect material is remarkably fluid: It’s about more than simply making a selection from a set of options. The architects often seek out a particular kind of stone, for example, learn about its properties, enlist the support of craftspeople who know its strengths and limitations, and then engage in an ongoing dialogue with the material itself. The buildings that emerge from this process are painstakingly shaped and crafted by both the architects and their many collaborators.

“You need to have faith in the material,” Williams says, “and then like vegetables you need to go to the farmer and find out which ones are best and what you can do with them. Then you also need to go to the chef and ask, ‘How do we mix these things?’ There’s a lot of research. We try to find a general direction and then we try to tease from it whatever we can find.” Recently, Metropolis’s editorial director, Paul Makovsky, and I spoke to the architects about their meticulous approach to materials using five seminal projects as case studies.

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North Bennington, VT: 2011

Billie Tsien: When we were thinking of materials, we went to Bennington and saw an old white Congregationalist church that had this amazing pathway made out of leftover pieces of marble dropped into the ground.

Tod Williams: We saw that and thought: This feels like what we want our building to be. So after a bit of research with our consultant Jamie Haskell, we found an old marble quarry with these massive blocks of stone strewn over an area nearly a mile in length. We also met the owner, Phil Gawet, who was using the stone as replacement parts for various state capitols and as headstones for graves at Arlington.

BT: These dry laid blocks were so beautiful and so varied that we decided to use that marble, accepting that it was going to be extremely rough.

TW: Phil showed us a way to cut the stone so that the masons could lay it and we could afford it.

BT: They were cut in relatively small pieces and then the contractor rented a warehouse. Because the buildings we designed had simple shapes, the masons were able to lay the stones out on the warehouse floor, and then we climbed into a cherry picker and looked down at the facade elevation to make sure there were no splotchy areas.

TW: This allowed us to tweak them a little bit, too. By laying out the stones, they could dry and then mark them so they could be put up on the building quickly. So though it cost more money to lay it out this way, it also sped up work on site. We did it entirely working with the rules we established with Phil and the guys who laid the stone.

University of California, Berkeley: 2008

BT: One of the things we wanted to do was identify the building as East Asian, so the screen is a traditional cracked ice pattern on the bottom and an abstraction at the top. We cast it out of bronze because a lot of the neoclassical buildings at Berkeley have these bronze grilles. We wanted to take the same material and cast it, but in a different form that said, “This is not Western literature. These books are all in character languages.”

TW: The off-white granite is warmer in color but quite similar to the stone used in the rest of the neighboring quadrangle. Stone is almost always a base material for us. It’s the root of every building. But we wanted to see the raw concrete. So instead of making it perfect, we sandblasted it to show the body of the concrete. Inside you see the raw concrete; outside the granite covers most of it.

Philadelphia: 2012

TW: We wanted our building to belong on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. All of the other buildings there are made of different types of limestone. We said our building should be massive, heavy, but we didn’t want it to be as vanilla as Indiana limestone. We looked at Tennessee pink and used a small amount on the floor, but it’s extremely expensive. You can’t get big pieces without enormous cost. So we looked at other stones and eventually settled on an Israeli limestone. While there we learned that what most people think of as Jerusalem stone now comes from the Negev, which is further south. We found several of these open pit quarries—hotter than shit there—and watched them cutting these huge massive blocks. We also went to the factory in Bethlehem where the stone is finished.

The business was an Israeli/Palestinian partnership. There we saw craftsmen hand-chiseling the stone and decided to use these crafted finishes.

BT: We did a lot of prototyping. We finished the test panels in different ways—honed, bush-hammered, and sandblasted—and then set up four 12-foot by 12-foot wall mock-ups using three different types of stones on the Franklin Parkway.

TW: The Tennessee pink was lighter, expensive, and we knew it would bleach out, so we used it sparingly. In the end, we chose the Negev limestone, but we had to break it down into two different types. The warmest color was soft—it’s called Ramon Gold—we used it on the inside, and then the slightly grayer stone, Ramon Grey, we used on the facade. We had to learn how to use the stone, while at the same time educating the client along the way.

Banyan Park, Mumbai: Ongoing

TW: When Ratan Tata approached us about the project, we asked: Why us? Tata, who studied architecture, said: “You love materials, and India is a great materials culture; you respect nature, and this is a site with a lot of trees that we really care about; and you don’t come with a signature style.” We said, “If we’re working in India, we want to use only Indian materials.” So we began doing some deep research and eventually found a stone that we thought was right. It was called Kashmir White. Unfortunately, India doesn’t have a good relationship with Kashmir—it’s up near Pakistan—so we couldn’t go there. But we kept looking and discovered that Kashmir White actually comes from the southern tip of India. We went to the quarry and talked to the people there. We learned that they were exporting all of the good material to Germany, and keeping the worst-quality stone in India. So we used that quarry and the better material to clad our buildings. We learned about how the stone was cut and how it was hung.

BT: At one point we took the contractors to the East Asian Library, in Berkeley, to show them how we had hung the stone there.

TW: All of the stone in India was staining. They were hanging it right, but the buildings were air-conditioned so there was a huge amount of heat transfer, and they weren’t getting their waterproofing membranes right.

BT: When we first started working with the craftsmen who carved Jalis nine years ago, everything was done by hand. For mock-ups we’d send a CAD drawing, they’d blow it up, print it out, glue it down to the stone, and then hand-cut it. Over time, the manufacturer has gone to CNC, so the stone is pre-cut. But then it’s always finished by hand, otherwise it’s just too precise.

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: 2006

TW: We needed an inexpensive brick. We wanted to add color so that the building didn’t look like the two red brick buildings next to it. So we found glazed ceramic bricks similar to ones we used at Cranbrook and began exploring different colors. Initially we thought blue would be very cool. But the client didn’t like blue. So we thought, “Let’s think ivy,” and Penn got into the idea. We tested several bricks with different thicknesses of glazing. When the final bricks went up, we told them, “Put them up as you wish,” so there are a couple of splotchy areas, but they give the facade a different texture, which says: “We’ve got a brick building, and it’s in relationship to the two next to it. It’s new, but it’s somehow old, too.”

BT: Initially we designed a skylight over an interior atrium space, but lost it in order to save money. We still wanted to create a sense of light in the atrium. Outside the building, the street was planted with gingko trees, which have brilliant yellow leaves. We asked Heath Ceramics to make tiles the color of gingko leaves. And because we wanted to animate the tiles, we asked that they make a circular depression at the bottom of each one, like a thumbprint. This allowed us to turn the tiles in different directions to create a sense of movement.

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