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17 Sep 2019

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien receive Praemium Imperiale Award
BY Stu Robarts

Williams and Tsien are currently designing the Barack Obama Presidential Center

Williams and Tsien are currently designing the Barack Obama Presidential Center
photo: Taylor Jewell

New York-based Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who are currently designing the Barack Obama Presidential Center, have received the 2019 Praemium Imperiale Award for architecture.

The global arts prize is awarded annually across five categories by the Japan Art Association to honour recipients for their “outstanding contributions to the development, promotion and progress of the arts”.

Speaking at the announcement of the 2019 laureates, former British Governor of Hong Kong and current advisor for Praemium Imperiale Lord Patten of Barnes said: “It is not unreasonable to consider [the Praemium Imperiale] the arts equivalent of the Nobel Prize.”

In announcing Williams and Tsien as the 2019 laureates for architecture, Praemium Imperiale described the duo’s work as having “strong values of beauty, timelessness and what they describe as “art and use’”. It described their belief that architecture is an act of “profound optimism”, a service that can reflect the values of public institutions that share this view and their strong social commitment to buildings the public can enjoy.

“We really want our buildings to sit well and feel as if, in a certain way, they’ve always been there,” explains Billie Tsien. “But then, we want to create an experience when you go in that surprises you and completely takes you out of the sense of: ‘this has always been there’.”

Williams and Tsien’s approach is described as a collaborative process that is intentionally slow and one that favours designing by hand over digital means.

Expanding on this, Tod Williams says: “I’m drawing to try to talk to myself and the drawing into others. It’s slowing it down so we can be in conversation with what we’re doing.”

Discussing their current work on the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, Williams says: “We use the words enable and enoble. One of them is in a way creating a kind of myth, like putting a person on a pedestal, and the other one is, in a way, grounding it. So, I think that’s the primary struggle with that project.”

Elsewhere, they have worked on the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Brooklyn and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment in New Jersey. The couple have worked together since 1977 and established their practice, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, in 1986.

“We’ve been talking about trying to just leave the world better,” says Tsien. “If you can really try to act on that all the time, I think in large and small ways it can be quite profound.”

Each Praemium Imperiale laureate receives a commemorative gold medal and an honorarium of 15 million Yen (around £100,000). The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Tokyo, Japan, this October.



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