Tod & Billie Musing #4

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have been in the fortunate position of working with artists over the years. The exhibitions that came early in the firm's career were not seen as stepping stones to larger buildings (which they may have partly been), but instead they've been a mainstay of the firm's practice, a way of figuratively keeping one foot in each realm of art and architecture, even if the duo is incredulous as to why. In the lecture last week they presented a number of their exhibition designs, as the lecture focused on museum work, in memory of Arthur Rosenblatt, who devoted much of his life to such. This post presents a few of the exhibitions they discussed in their lecture.

The first one I saw, back in undergrad while browsing some books in the architecture library, was their 1989-90 installation "Domestic Arrangements" for the Walker Arts Center. This was probably my first encounter with Tod & Billie. My first impression was the undeniable skill in which they composed their portion of the exhibition (a number of other architects/artists shared the galleries for the larger "Architecture Tomorrow" show), but also the sense of quiet that pervaded it. They sculpted domesitc pieces, such as chairs, from homasote, a wallboard material that found expression later in the ceiling of the Neurosciences Institute's theater (if memory serves me). An overhead plane also appers to inpire a later building, 1992's New College at the University of Virginia. If the exhibitions were/are a "testing ground" for building design elements is not vocalized by the duo, but that seems to be the case, intentional or not. The most interesting aspect of this exhibition, relative to the rest of their work, is that it traveled to the Downtown Whitney, which the duo finished a year before the exhibition. Two designs of theirs merged admittedly well.

[Domestic Arrangements exhibition at Walker Arts Center| image source]

For the National Building Museum's 2004-06 "Liquid Stone" exhibition in Washington, DC, the duo was given rectangular patches in the separate galleries for their installation, surrounded by the presentation of buildings using concrete in innovative ways. Tod & Billie opted to express the steel reinforcing that is so imprtant to construction in concrete but is always hidden. They reversed this relationship, making the rebar "reeds" the most expressionistic part of the installation, anchored to small concrete bases with holes to accept the rebar. It creates wonderful imagery, especially with the play of light and shadow. But it also affects the visitor's relationship to the rest of the exhibition as one moves through the galleries, structuring the spaces but making the definition porous.

[Liquid Stone exhibition at NBM | image source]

Last year's exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City for "The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend" was a simple, diagrammatic even, presentation of the artist's sculptures. A fabric scrim framed the half black, half white division in the gallery beyond, giving the visitors a filtered view of her sculptures. Tod & Billie's (more the latter than the former, actually) appreciation of a lack of definition is evident here, as it was in an earlier exhibition of Noguchi lamps where the duo used the same scrim to make the lights ethereal, moving the focus away from the lamp to the light itself.

[Louise Nevelson exhibition | image source - PDF]

This year's SITE Sante Fe in New Mexico made Tod & Billie the instigators for artist's interventions in the exhibition's main venue. Curator Lance Fung (who had worked with the architects before on the Snow Show in Sestriere, Italy in 2006) also asked them to add an entrance piece to the relatively anonymous building. The wood frame hints at what is going on inside.

[SITE Santa Fe exhibition | image sources: top and bottom]

On view until early January next year, the 7th Biennial's gallery installation is a blend of Tod & Billie's circulation network and the artist's pieces in, on, and around the leftover spaces created by a ramp that traverses the spaces on an elevated level. Many of the artists disliked the unconventional spaces created, but many embraced the uniqueness of them. Most popular among them is Piero Golia's Manifest Destiny, which exhibits the the simple, wood-frame construction of the installation. In the intervention visitors jump from the ramp that the artist cut onto a foam landing pad. Pictures taken on the way down become the artwork, both inspired and created by the architect's installation.

[SITE Santa Fe exhibition | image source]

Tod & Billie Musing #1
Tod & Billie Musing #2
Tod & Billie Musing #3


  1. I just came across this, a very cool piece indeed. The XXX on top of site santa fe was so intensely bright that it was difficult to drive by at night - it was THAT intense. Many friends of mine here in New Mexico were complaining about it, but I dug it - small price to pay for great art and architecture.

    Mark Baker
    Baker A+D


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