Making a Better World through Architecture

Posted on Tue., Dec. 13, 2022 by Lynne Heffley
Expand image Karen R. Lawrence and Billie Tsien in conversation on a stage.

Karen R. Lawrence, president of The Huntington, in conversation with architect Billie Tsien during the “Why It Matters” event in Rothenberg Hall on Nov. 7, 2022. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

What can architecture aspire to be? Award-winning architect and educator Billie Tsien has some ideas and shared them in conversation with Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence last month. Part of The Huntington’s “Why It Matters” series, the event took place before an audience in Rothenberg Hall that included the Southern California architectural community—from students to professionals—as well as members of the public.

Tsien and husband Tod Williams are the founders of the New York–based firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners, and she is the Charles Gwathmey Professor in Practice at Yale University. Among her firm’s projects are the public spaces at David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center in New York, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, and the Obama Presidential Center, underway in Jackson Park, Chicago.

Expand image Billie Tsien stands at a podium with images of the Obamas behind her.

Tsien discusses the presentation that her architecture firm made to the Obamas before being selected to design the Obama Presidential Center. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

Tsien and Williams’ firm was chosen from among 140 architecture firms worldwide to design the Obama Presidential Center, which broke ground on Sept. 28, 2021, and is scheduled for completion in 2025.

In a slide presentation of her work that preceded the conversation, Tsien talked about the development process for the design of the center, which began with word pairings such as “ennoble” and “enable,” and “storytelling” and “story-making,” as a reflection of the Obama presidency, his drive to inspire others to make change in the world, and his desire that the center be a welcoming and inspiring place not only for visitors coming from far away, but also for the people in the surrounding South Side neighborhood.

Tsien and Lawrence discussed the role of words in the design of the main building, which features a lighted tower displaying an extract from President Barack Obama’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march. The words are visible on the exterior of the structure. Tsien described the approach as a way to honor the presidency through “an incredible speech … about coming together as a nation” and commented that the words serve to guide the design of the 19-acre multibuilding center.

Expand image The Obama Presidential Center rendering

The Obama Presidential Center has been designed as a campus integrated with landscape, comprising a museum tower, forum building, and library surrounding a public plaza. A spirit of inclusiveness is represented by a lighted tower displaying words from President Barack Obama’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march. Courtesy of The Obama Foundation.

Like Obama, Tsien believes in the power of words and the interior scaffolding they provide. When asked by Lawrence about how she became an architect, Tsien spoke about how this habit of mind, a desire to develop an “internal life,” began during her childhood in a suburban New Jersey town, where hers was “the only Chinese family.” She discovered while growing up that reading gave her “this idea of other people’s stories and making a story,” which first led her to art. That philosophy transfers seamlessly to her architectural projects, working on designs from the inside out by envisioning the interiors of buildings from the perspectives of the people who will use them before moving on to the exteriors.

Expand image Rendering of the Sky Room in the Obama Presidential Center.

View from the Sky Room in the Obama Presidential Center’s museum tower, which will provide views of Jackson Park, Hyde Park, downtown Chicago, and Lake Michigan. Rendering by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners.

Tsien earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Yale University, where she and Lawrence were classmates, although they did not meet until the pandemic brought them together in an online gathering for alumni.

Lawrence asked Tsien about the “constraints,” as well as the inspiration, involved in designing a building for a client. These constraints entail “working within some rules—almost like a poetic constraint,” and yet, Lawrence commented, they seem to have spurred Tsien’s creativity. Tsien responded that, at Yale, she came to realize that the problem for her with being an artist was that “there are no constraints.” Architecture, on the other hand, “gives you a box that you … work within, kick your way out of, or stomp on.” After she earned a Master of Architecture degree from UCLA and began her professional career, she relished working within her client’s constraints to create buildings that told their stories, solved their problems, and captured their visions.

One of the increasingly challenging constraints facing architects today, Tsien noted, is sustainability. The Obama Presidential Center’s energy consumption will be net-zero, she said, “and that’s a big struggle because it’s a very big project.” She disagreed, however, with the notion that “all buildings should be somehow very light on the land. I think buildings need to be made with a sense of integrity so that they can be reused … and not be simply washed away.”

Expand image Karen R. Lawrence and Billie Tsien in conversation on a stage.

Lawrence and Tsien discuss a range of topics, including the connection between architecture and sustainability, during the “Why It Matters” event in Rothenberg Hall on Nov. 7, 2022. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

Appointed by President Biden to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, Tsien is the first woman and first Asian American to chair the commission. “One of the ways that architecture can matter is that it can serve,” Tsien said. “And if it can serve in a way that transcends the service itself, then there’s the possibility that it can be noble.”

You can watch a video of this event on The Huntington’s website.

Celebrating The Huntington’s unparalleled opportunities for cross-disciplinary exploration of human culture and history, the “Why It Matters” series features Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence in conversation with distinguished guests about the enduring relevance of the humanities.

Lynne Heffley is a freelance writer and editor based in South Pasadena, California.