Experts discuss structural concepts | The Triangle

Experts discuss structural concepts

Expert architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien discussed their experience in the field of architectural engineering in the Mandell Theater Jan. 8 as part of the Arfaa Lecture Series, sponsored by Drexel’s Department of Architecture and Interiors. Students, faculty, and community members were invited to hear about the success of the husband-and-wife duo based in Central Park, N.Y.

Although they are not responsible for the current construction projects overlaying Drexel’s campus, they are inextricably tied to Philadelphia, having designed Skirkanich Hall at the University of Pennsylvania as well as the Barnes Foundation on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. They also are the forces behind the current project of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University.

In all three of the projects, they have maintained the same values and structural creativity that constantly “emphasize the interior of the building as the most important experience,” Williams said.


Steven Cantando, a fourth-year architecture major and immense fan of Williams and Tsien, said, “I love the work they’ve done, the care they take in their work, and especially the way people circulate in their buildings. It is incredibly beautiful and detail oriented.”

Cantando also appreciated the emphasis that Williams and Tsien placed on “stressing the ground plane; it’s something I’ll always strive for.” He noticed that the team conveys sustainability not merely by attaching a solar panel to a building but rather by integrating sustainability “through design from conception to construction to engineering.”

Williams and Tsien lectured on the challenges of Skirkanich Hall, such as how it needed to operate on three different axes of movement: to and from the street and both neighboring buildings. It serves as the main walkway into the School of Engineering and Applied Science while still maintaining its own aesthetic invitation for passers-by to venture inside. The hall features a “secret garden” which “acts as a hidden gem where you can feel apart even though you’re in the center of the complex,” Williams said. The value placed on reflection and meditation within their buildings is a stylistic pattern that permeates many of the couple’s designs.

The Barnes Foundation, which opened in spring 2012, is a gallery collection in downtown Philadelphia that Williams and Tsien often refer to as a “gallery in a garden and a garden in a gallery.”

The structure of the building was made to create a connection between the paintings and the garden itself. The large, symmetrically placed windows allow for a noticeable amount of natural light to enter the gallery, which Tsien said is “absolutely essential” for any gallery. The windows to the gardens not only act a source of illumination, and hence a way to creatively work with their budget, but they also insert a sense of serenity and calmness into what may be an intense artistic experience in the gallery.

In an effort to reflect the interests of Albert C. Barnes, there are various African motifs and cloth patterns included in the construction. The Barnes Foundation is also LEED Platinum certified, indicating that it has met rigorous green building design and construction requirements.

The architects also have a unique perspective on the design of one of the most important features of the building: emergency stairs. The thought of designing a staircase exclusively designated and used for emergencies seemed at first to be pointless to Williams and Tsien, but then they thought, as Williams said, “Why waste a staircase? It shouldn’t only be used for a fire; it should be used every day.” The team aims to celebrate the aestheticism of their staircases, designing them in such a way that they still invite plenty of natural light to illuminate the interior of their buildings while also placing them in more trafficked areas.

Many in the audience, including Cantando, humorously related to the value placed on the interior of a building rather than the exterior, in the same way that the importance ought to be placed on the inside of people rather than the outside. They admitted that their philosophy avoids putting unnecessary chunks of their budget into making the exterior of a building appear overly exotic, and they instead seek to add to the visual serenity and circulation of the interior of the building. This, of course is no easy task for architects, as oftentimes “people get sucked into [spending on] the exotic,” Cantando said.

In closing, Tsien gave credit to the entire team for everyone’s creative and laborious efforts. “This is the work of many, many hands, and also many hearts,” she said.

The Arfaa lecture series was planned by full-time professors Simon Tickell, Mark Brack and associate teaching professor Martha Lucy, among others who are also involved in the Barnes Foundation. The next lecture in the series will feature architect Robin Klehr Avia April 9.