Shifting Planes Clarify Clutter

Event: Tod Williams, Billie Tsien, and Sir John Soane
Location: The Union Club, 03.03.08
Speakers: Tod Williams, FAIA, & Billie Tsien, AIA — Partners, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
Organizers: Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation; Architectural Record

American Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum exhibition wall with surface-mounted weathervanes.

Photo by Michael Moran, 2002, courtesy American Folk Art Museum.

Like architect Sir John Soane, Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, partners of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, prefer buildings’ interiors to their exteriors, since “the enclosed environment,” as Williams put it, is where people spend most of their time. They use “complex plans” and “shifting sections” as methods to strengthen their designs. For example, the American Folk Art Museum is only 30,000 square feet with a 40-foot by 106-foot floor plate. The stair and piano nobile generated the architecture. By manipulating the section, Williams and Tsien opened the plan to wash the galleries in natural light. By shifting planes, the building becomes an experience and journey of discovery, and the space unfolds as visitors move through the museum.

13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a home designed and inhabited by Soane, may be cluttered, but the intricate plan and shifting sections enhance the interiors. “The complexity makes the experience at every level of the interior memorable,” said Williams, who spoke recently with Tsien about the influence of Soane on their work.

The most recent challenge for Williams and Tsien is designing a new home for the Barnes Foundation museum in downtown Philadelphia (a still-controversial move from Merion, PA), dedicated to fine arts education advocate Albert C. Barnes. This project has strict design parameters, including Barnes’ meticulously cluttered arrangement of art and his mandate to not change anything. The interior is the most important element of the architecture, but the rules prevent the architects from conceptualizing the building from scratch. Perhaps once the design is complete, they will take cue from Soane by invigorating the building through the in-between spaces and voids as they have done before.