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DesignMind: Reflections on Billie Tsien’s NewSchool Lecture

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Published on:

December 7, 2016


DesignMind: Reflections on Billie Tsien’s NewSchool Lecture

At NewSchool, we are extremely proud of our Lecture Series, which brings world-renowned guest lecturers to campus as part of our mission to enhance global design education opportunities for both our students and the local community and design industry. Last month, we were fortunate to have Billie Tsien, an internationally acclaimed architect who, with her husband, Tod Williams, was recently selected to design the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.

I have known Billie for a long time, which has allowed me to see her work since the early days of her career. Consistent throughout is her deliberate and careful approach toward the process of architecture. There is a strong tendency in her process to listen and observe deeply before coming up with a design concept. That notion of deep understanding pervades their work.

Many times people will get a commission like the Obama library and within weeks you see them promoting some grand project. That work is often superficial and self-congratulatory. Billie’s work has a thoughtful, deep understanding of a place. It has an amazing tactile quality because it is about craft, material, texture, tone, and color. The real architecture of Billie and Tod’s buildings is how you touch it and how you interact with it. It has an intense humanity. Billie mentioned to me that Michelle Obama very much had it in mind that the library must enhance the life of everyone who comes to the park, not just those who visit the building.

I asked a few of our faculty for their reflections on Billie Tsien’s lecture:

Tatiana Berger, Associate Professor, Graduate Architecture, and Chair of the NewSchool Lecture Series Committee:

“As both an educator and leader in design, Billie displays a deep commitment to making the world a better place through architecture. She has a poetic approach to architecture, and her voice and influence is one we deeply value in educating our students.”

Elena Pacenti, Ph.D., Chair, School of Design:

“Billie Tsien walked the audience through a sophisticated journey about beauty and design: that territory where beauty is not just something aesthetically pleasing but comes from the meaning that people recognize behind every design choice. Her words perfectly complemented the visual power and poetry of the images of their work. I’m really glad that Billie’s lecture opened the academic year: “Inside Out”—where all dimensions and scales of design seamlessly blend—was the perfect keynote to celebrate the rounded, interconnected, human-centered design culture we promote at NewSchool through the dialogue between the School of Architecture and the School of Design.”

Kurt Hunker, FAIA—Graduate Architecture Program Chair:

“What was eloquently on display in Billie’s words and images is an approach to architecture and design that counters the superficial contemporary fixation on ‘starchitects’ and icon-makers in favor of a much more meaningful, nuanced response to program, client and context our students would do well to emulate.”

Leonard Zegarski, AIA—Undergraduate Architecture Program Chair:

“Only one word is needed: Inspirational! Her work lifts architecture out of the mundane and everyday that surrounds us. The work she produces meets any definition of architecture as proposed by either Louis Kahn or Le Corbusier. It ‘touches the heart’ after Cobu and ‘it is the thoughtful making of space’ after Kahn.”

Michael Stepner, FAIA, FAICP:

“For me the important messages were that words matter. Architects and designers must be able to convey their thoughts and ideas to others—and enter in to a dialog. And that we must as architects and designers be able to make connections to the broader context—not just architecture.”

What did you think of Billie Tsien’s lecture? Who would you like to see speak at NewSchool?