Museums Balance Unform, Form

Event: 2008 Arthur Rosenblatt Lecture: Todd Williams and Billie Tsien
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.22.08
Speakers: Tod Williams, FAIA; Billie Tsien, AIA — Partners, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
Organizer: AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee
Sponsors: Koutsomitis Architects; SPRINGBOARD Architecture

For Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, projects exists between neutral and molded space, between the container and the contained. The installations and museums designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects represent this idea, what they call “unform” and “form.”

The alternative art space, “Art on the Beach” (1988), was designed in collaboration with artist Jackie Ferrara on a former industrial site in Hunters Point, Queens. Concrete blocks found in the vicinity were arranged into a series of roughly orthogonal demarcations, to be activated by various installations and performances taking place in and around them. The design is an example of “unform” — an architectural enclosure to be indefinitely expanded upon by the user. At Whitney Downtown, a spare refurbished basement originally designed by Philip Johnson, Tsien and Williams created a work called “Domestic Arrangements: A Lab Report” (1990). By building a pine-board table-bed in the center of the room with a theatrical balcony-and-stair entrance, the “unformed” space was activated by “form.”

For the American Folk Art Museum (2002) and Phoenix Art Museum (1997/2006) the team shaped architectural experience within neutral containers. In Phoenix, Tsien and Williams designed two contrasting additions, one spare and one more elaborate. The simple steel truss hangar is energized by an exposed staircase. Variegated surfaces impact the new section — unform confronts form. Stairs were used again at the Folk Art Museum. Simultaneous movement on different levels is expressed on the exterior, a rough-hewn bronze box with planar projections suggestive of a formed force pressing against the unformed envelope.

Amidst litigation surrounding the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Williams and Tsien were tight-lipped. Despite some of the requirements being placed upon them — including the preservation of the original curatorial arrangement of pieces — the most they would say is that “the art will have to act as the formed element, and we’ll have to build an unformed structure around it.”