to leave good marks upon the earth

Billie Tsien Tod Williams

Billie Tsien Tod Williams. Photo courtesy of

“We see architecture as an act of profound optimism.  Its foundation lies in believing that it is possible to make places 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.  We wrote these words a number of years ago and believe in them even more deeply today.”  Tod Williams/Billie Tsien Architects.

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien were asked to participate in the second of a two-part series, Couples in Architecture: Design by Marriage at the Bard Graduate Center.  Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a sonnet for the Tony Awards.  Listening to Williams and Tsien was like poetry.  There was no archi-speak. They proved it is possible to talk about making architecture without being pretentious and using jargon.

The occasion for the conversation between Williams and Tsien is the current exhibition, Artek and the Aaltos:  Creating A Modern World.  Notice the plural in Aaltos. The show is about the furniture and objects designed by Alvar Aalto and his wife, Aino Marsio-Aalto. We remember Aalto today for the ubiquitous savoy vase and only in rarefied circles does anyone remember the contribution of his wife.

Aino Marsio-Aalto and Alvar Aalto in the Artek-Pascoe showroom, New York, 1940, photograph Alto Family Collection

Aino Marsio-Aalto and Alvar Aalto in the Artek-Pascoe showroom, New York, 1940, photograph Alto Family Collection

Marriage is hard enough, without the double whammy of collaborating and working in the same profession, in the same firm, on projects together.  I wanted to know the “secret” of  successful relationship between Williams and Tsien.


The Barnes Foundation. Photo courtesy of

the aggressive male and characterized Billie as reflective.  Williams  imagines himself inside a space and looks for the way in and the way out.  Tsien on the other hand, thinks about space as a series of experiences.

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The Aalto stool in the original colors

Billie talked about becoming an architect.  She wasn’t sure that was the right profession for her.  Being a librarian was high on her list.  “What I like about architecture is you are not trying to solve your own problems.  I like having other people give me problems to solve.”  That is one of the things, I like about making gardens for other people.



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