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Two Visiting Architects Talk Beauty, Safety and "Making Places"

State of the Arts


Published October 12, 2011 at 10:27 a.m.

The American Folk Art Museum in New York City, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects and completed in 2001, ignited a critical battle that continues to this day. One New Yorker critic hailed the façade’s arrangement of white-bronze panels as ingenious, “like monumental origami.” Another, at the New York Times, called it “vaguely lunar”; a third, at New York Magazine, dismissed it as “a bronzed Kleenex box.” The architect-couple’s own website claims it evokes “an abstracted open hand.” At the very least, their creation has engendered wildly different opinions.

“As good architecture tends to do,” asserts John McLeod, program director of architectural studies at Middlebury College and partner, with Steve Kredell, in the Middlebury firm McLeod Kredell Architects. “That’s what’s great about architecture,” he adds. “Everyone has an opinion on it because we live with it.”

McLeod selected Tsien (pronounced “Chin”) and another well-regarded architect, Koichiro Aitani, to visit the college this fall as Cameron Visiting Architects. Begun five years ago and funded by an alumni family, the program exposes architecture majors and the public to significant practicing architects who give talks and mount exhibitions on their recent work.

Tsien and Williams’ firm is exhibiting materials related to its new Bennington College building, the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, which opened Friday. The newest addition to the campus — already architecturally significant — helped land Bennington in Architectural Digest’s top-10 “College Campuses with the Best Architecture” in August.

Tsien describes the center as a series of three buildings, arranged around an interior glass-walled courtyard, that “unfold to the user slowly.” Their focus is a “miniature general assembly room ... where people could talk about issues that affect the world.”

Two priorities for the design, Tsien says, were to give it a “connected relationship to the landscape” and make it “a building about Vermont.” The center’s three elements are faced in reclaimed Vermont marble that the architect says is cut from “an elephant’s graveyard of marble in a big yard with old, rusty equipment” near Rutland. A Bennington-trained potter fashioned different tiles for each bathroom.

The Middlebury exhibit will contain sketches, models, a set of working drawings, descriptions of false starts and samples of the materials used. It focuses on process, says Tsien, “because what’s seen in architecture is the finished products.” Tsien’s talk will address how her firm’s architectural vision has developed.

“We’re very interested in making places rather than making objects,” she explains, and adds that restraint is a major aspect of the couple’s aesthetic. “We don’t want to have a trademark look,” she says — an aim that distinguishes the firm from the approach of so-called “starchitects” such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid.

The idea of integrating a building with its natural surroundings is also a touchstone for McLeod, whose 2008 Middlebury house abutting a nature preserve can be viewed on the website ArchDaily. The architecture prof says he’s been admiring Williams and Tsien’s work since he was a grad student at Virginia Tech. That school’s master’s program is also where McLeod met Japanese architect Koichiro Aitani: The two collaborated on their thesis work.

Aitani promises to be another intriguing draw, having worked with Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Tadao Ando before heading to the U.S. to study, architecture and work with the long-established firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in San Francisco, among others. (He now lives in Japan.) Aitani’s exhibit and talk will use his own photos — he’s a photographer, too — to address a range of topics. They include large-scale projects such as his winning design, while at SOM, for the Oakland Cathedral; and the current post-tsunami situation in Japan, “to emphasize that architects need to consider not just design and beauty but safety issues,” says McLeod. The exhibit will also explore Japanese gardens as a way of addressing the historically different Eastern view of harmony between nature and humans. “He’ll be the first non-Western architect we’ve brought in,” notes McLeod of Aitani.

Meanwhile, architecture fans can form their own opinions on Tsien and Williams’ Bennington College building, and hear from the source how such projects take shape.

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