Architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams Honored at Asia Week Gala

New Yorker critic: 'They follow no precedent'

Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien at Asia Society's Celebration of Asia Week gala at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on March 19, 2012. (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

Remarks by New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger at Asia Society's Celebration of Asia Week gala on March 19, 2012.

Good evening. My name is Paul Goldberger, and it is my honor to say a word about the recipients of the Asia Society's Global Arts Award for this year, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. They are the architects of the Asia Society's remarkable new Hong Kong Center — a series of abandoned, disconnected buildings in Hong Kong that they transformed into an exquisite, elegant and subtle public cultural center — but the success of this new project only begins to hint at why they are being honored tonight.

Tod and Billie are like no architects I know. Most architects, these days, like to talk about design strategies and synergies and their mastery of the latest technologies, and you could almost mistake them for management consultants — indeed, some of them probably want to be mistaken for management consultants. There is no possibility of such confusion with Tod and Billie. They talk about slowness, and precision, and about how the making of buildings is still, in the end, a process of doing many things by hand. They are interested not only in how different materials function, but in how they feel, in what emotions and tactile sensations this kind of stone or that kind of wood or metal communicate to us. They think about light, and texture, and proportion, and scale, and materials, and about how all of these things can be put together to create an order and a serenity that make a place meaningful.

They have built several of the buildings I've most admired over the years — the Neurosciences Institute in LaJolla, California; the Natatorium at Cranbrook in Michigan; the Phoenix Art Museum, and the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street just a few blocks from here. And one of their most ambitious structures, the new home for the Barnes Foundation museum in Philadelphia, will open this spring.

Every one of these buildings is a rebuke to those who suggest that modern architecture is by definition harsh and cold, and that the only way in which you can make a building that will bring warmth, comfort and tranquility is to replicate some historical style. Tod and Billie do not replicate; they think. Their work may be uniformly modern, but their buildings are varied, and they follow no precedent. There is no Williams and Tsien "look." There is, rather, a Williams and Tsien ethos, and it was put beautifully by the architects themselves, who wrote on their website that "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 that matters. It is what we have to give and it is what we leave behind."

To honor Tod and Billie is to celebrate grace and beauty — and, most of all, to honor the way in which architecture, at its best, can at once solve a problem and elevate our life.

And now, it is my great pleasure to present Tod Williams and Billie Tsien with the Asia Society’s Global Arts Award. Please join me in congratulating them.

Photos: Asia Society's Celebration of Asia Week Benefit Gala