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Solidity, Place, and Character: Why TWTBA Uses Natural Stone

by | Feb 29, 2024 |

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Fall 2022 edition of Building Stone Magazine. All photos courtesy of TWBTA unless otherwise noted.

Photo courtesy of Taylor Jewell.

Billie Tsien and Tod Williams credit their love of stone with their frequent visits to Rome. As Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners, the pair has designed and built more than 40 buildings, a large percentage of which are made using natural stone. “We’re interested in solidity, place and character,” Williams says, with the ultimate goal of creating projects “that have a long lifespan, are meaningful to the community, and will be loved for centuries.”

Their choice to use natural stone is both practical and philosophical.

The Day to Day of Stone

With each commission come client wants and needs for certain materials. Cost plays a factor. Durability and permanence play a factor as do future maintenance, longevity, and return on investment. These are all part of the practical side of material selections.

“Stone,” says Williams, “is a really good and durable permanent material. You go into the cathedrals, synagogues, mosques — the floors are made of stone, and they’re usually a patchwork quilt with headstones embedded in it and so on. It actually becomes more rich over time. I never go into the Pantheon without being absolutely riveted by the floor and the different colors that are there and the way it wears. I love the wear.” Stone is also a “wonderful and protective shell. It gives an exterior dignity.”

Tsien says that they are passionate about maintenance and longevity. “The idea of longevity is not abstract,” she says. Tsien and Williams connect with maintenance people and ask questions: How long does it last? Can this be cleaned? Who will clean it, and how? “Longevity,” Tsien says, “is very much based on the care of the stone.”


Character Development

The other side to design decisions and material choices is the emotional. It is Tsien’s and Williams’ innate senses that give a project a feeling of calm and quiet or energy and movement.

Tsien says she has always believed in “the importance of ‘showing the hand.’ We don’t believe in having a perfect, smooth stone that all looks the same from piece to piece. We’re interested in stones that have a vivid character.” It’s an important quality but hard to define. Some of it comes from natural stone’s irregularities, its “defects” that are not truly defects. Stone is a material pulled from the earth that is perfect in its imperfection. But beyond that, Tsien and Williams feel stone’s character more deeply. Says Williams, character includes “the person who cuts it and dresses it, how it moves along from being extracted from the ground to its final place. Even that has its own specific character.” 

Choosing the right stone starts with quarries, where the couple spends a lot of their time. Williams likens quarrying to “farming building material.” He enjoys meeting the quarrier, he says, “because that person knows how best to remove the stone from the ground and where the best pieces are of a certain quality or character. As with purchasing vegetables from a farmer you might say, ‘Well, what’s good today? What stone do you feel is best at this time in this place?’ I think that anyone who really loves stone, likes that it came from a specific place.”

When he visits a quarry, Williams says he imagines the quarried walls as buildings. “They’re negative buildings. I look at the wall of the quarry that we’re using, for example, getting Granite Tapestry stone from Tony Ramos’s quarry. [Ramos is a stone carver and founder of New England Stone.] That 80-foot-tall wall in the quarry is a building. There’s inspiration there.”

The relationship with the quarriers is important. “An awful lot of the stone industry is family owned,” Williams says. “That has a special resonance for us. We [Billie and I] are both married and partners and that goes deep in our studio; we all work in essentially one room. There’s conviviality and kindness and a sense of family.”

Tsien adds that “one of the great things about the stone industry is that it is personal, unlike something that’s manufactured like sheetrock — you can’t actually go to the source of sheetrock and talk to the person who owns the sheetrock. Whether it’s a quarry in Europe or India or Western Massachusetts, it’s always about the people together with the material. For us, that’s a very rich relationship.”

Good quarrying practices are also important to them. “You want to make sure the quarry is tended to in such a way that it is actually good for the earth,” Williams says. “Maintaining an efficient quarry, with as little disturbance to the surrounding ecological and community conditions is deeply important in stone sourcing. So, the quarriers have the same responsibilities that we do to make buildings that are meaningful.”

Source Code

Many of their projects take five years from inception to completion. “Within the first six months,” Williams says, “we’re investigating the stone.” They look at stone for the exterior and interior of their projects. “As we get into the interiors, we might find that another stone comes forward, or we look at the same stone in a different finish. We like to have at least two to three different kinds of stone that are similar so that we can make sure the owner and contractor have a voice in the selection. From the outset, we learn as we go.”

They look first for stone that might be local to a project but what’s more important is to find the right stone that will accomplish the project’s goals. For the LeFrak Centre at Lakeside, a covered ice rink in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Williams says they wanted stone from New York but they couldn’t find what they wanted and got it from Canada. “We had it chopped in a particular way so that it would feel a little bit like it was done by hand years ago, or at least compatible with that. That’s a perfect example of where we couldn’t get the stone locally, but we could try to make sure it was grounded and quiet so that the landscape itself came forward.”

Tsien and Williams never demand that a client use a particular stone, but they will tell clients they have a strong preference for a material and offer their reasons for why it’s the best choice. “But our vision has to be their vision, and their vision has to be our vision,” Tsien says.

By way of example, Tsien recalls the design for the welcome center at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich. The client wanted to use a “less expensive and more subtle stone which came from Minnesota versus a wild and crazy stone that came from Brazil,” Tsien says. “And so, we used the stone from Minnesota, and the project turned out to be beautiful, but in my heart of hearts I’m still curious what the result would be with the other stone.”

Williams and Tsien look at color and veining, often creating a “kind of tapestry of colors,” Williams says. He adds that they have a penchant for using dimensional stone. “I’m not interested in techniques that somehow try to thin out stone. Basically, we’re interested in the stone as an embodied material, something that has body; it should have depth both in meaning and dimension.” 

When asked if they ever disagree on what materials to use, Williams laughs and says, “almost always, but we always end up in the place where we agree.”

Ultimately their vision is part of a dialogue between the project and the earth, as well as an ongoing conversation with the stakeholders.  “We want our buildings to grow from the earth to the extent that they can,” Williams says. “When you’re talking about stone, you need to be humble because it has been around for a very, very long time.”