The Work of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

Barnes Foundation

Crane & Benjamin Riley / Barnes Foundation

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA) is an award-winning architecture firm based in New York City that designs civic, institutional, educational, and private buildings in the U.S. and around the world. Husband-and-wife partners Williams and Tsien started working together in 1977 and co-founded the practice in 1986. They currently run TWBTA alongside their associate Paul Schulhof, who joined the firm in 1993 and became a third partner in 2013.

TWBTA is perhaps most widely known for its much admired and sorely lamented American Folk Art Museum building in NYC, which was inaugurated in 2001 and was later demolished when MoMA bought and razed it to make room for an expansion in 2014.

American Folk Art Museum, NYC
Andrew Burton / Getty Images

In addition to museums and cultural buildings, they have designed everything from university dorms and academic centers to a US embassy, an award-winning residence, and a private pool house. TWBTA is currently lead design team for the upcoming Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.

TWBTA partners (from left to right) Tod Williams, Billien Tsien, Paul Schulhof
Taylor Jewell / Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects 

The Substance of Style

While many architects develop an easily recognizable architectural style that they then tailor to various projects, TWBTA has a more mission-driven, process-oriented approach to contemporary architecture. “I think we have signature values,” Tod Williams once told Architect Magazine, “But not a signature style.”

The architects say that while each project “is unique to its place and mission,” what unites their disparate body of work is “a consistency in the quality and essence of our buildings.”

The architects begin conceptualizing each project by talking to the people who will inhabit it, in order to understand their specific needs—core factors that drive the design process and eventually influence the final result. But they also bring an acute sensitivity to the aesthetics of the buildings and how they integrate into the surrounding landscape to ensure that they add up to more than the sum of their working parts.

Phoenix Art Museum
Phoenix Art Museum. Phoenix Art Museum

“We believe that architecture is the coming together of art and use,” the architects write on their site. “Our buildings are carefully made from the inside out to be functional in ways that speak to both efficiency and the spirit. A sense of rootedness, light, texture, detail, and most of all, experience, are at the heart of what we design. We are driven by a desire to design projects that transcend their function, imbuing their surroundings with a dignified presence that will affect people for years to come.”

Phoenix Art Museum
Bill Timmerman / Phoenix Art Museum

Notable Projects

With a relatively modest 30 collaborators, TWBTA is selective about the projects it takes on in order to be involved in every step of the design process, but they have nonetheless completed dozens of buildings over the last three decades, including:

The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA

Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

LeFrak Center at Lakeside, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

Barnes Foundation
Crane & Benjamin Riley / Barnes Foundation

Center for the Advancement of Public Action, Bennington College, Bennington, VT

Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Admiralty, Hong Kong

David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, New York, NY

American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY

Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ

Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
Michael Perez / Barnes Foundation

Whitney Museum of American Art Downtown Branch, New York, NY

Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, NY

Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

Kim & Tritton Residence Halls, Haverford College, Haverford, PA

Neurosciences Institute, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA

US Embassy Complex, Mexico City, Mexico

Tata Consultancy Services, Banyan Park, Mumbai, India

Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College
Abby Mahler / Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College

Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Admiralty, Hong Kong

Long Island House, Wainscott, NY

Desert House, Phoenix, AZ

New York City Townhouse, New York, NY

Pool House, Kings Point, NY

Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College
Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College

Awards and Honors

TWBTA has received dozens of national and international awards and honors over the years, including the 2013 AIA Architecture Firm Award; the 2019 Praemium Imperiale, a global arts prize awarded annually by the Japan Art Association; and the 2003 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Architecture Design.

Obama awards 2013 National Medal Of Arts And National Humanities Medal to architect Billie Tsien (L) and Tod Williams (center).
Alex Wong / Getty Images

In 2013, Williams and Tsien each were awarded a National Medal of Arts from President Obama, who later chose TWBTA to lead the design of his forthcoming presidential library, the The Obama Presidential Center, which is slated to be built on the South Side of Chicago.

Obama Presidential Center
The Obama Foundation

A Better World Through Architecture

In addition to their work as architects, Tsien and Williams are deeply involved in the arts community and teach and lecture around the world. Fellows of the American Academy in Rome, the pair have been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Academy, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Tsien is the current President of the Architectural League of New York, and Williams is a Trustee of the Cranbrook Educational Community.

“As both educators and practitioners, we are deeply committed to making a better world through architecture,” the architects have said, adding: “We see architecture as an act of profound optimism. Its foundation lies in believing that it is possible to make places on the earth that can give a sense of grace to life—and believing that this matters. It is what we have to give and it is what we leave behind.”