New York

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien

Whitney Museum of American Art

As an alternative to the predictable selection of drawings and models, architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien chose to treat their exhibition as a temporary event, presenting a second version of an installation that first appeared at Walker Art Center as part of the series “Architecture Tomorrow.”

Williams and Tsien designed the Whitney Downtown’s underground exhibition space several years ago, and a spectacular stairway and smart reception desk evidence their passion for materials and sensitivity to detail, as well as a wisdom about the rational and sensual codeterminants of spatial experience. In this elegant context their current installation, a theatrical arrangement of props entitled Domestic Arrangements (A Lab Report) looks like a poor cousin visiting rich relatives. Shaped by very different circumstances, still, as in all of Williams’ and Tsien’s work, an identifiable sensibility remains detectable.

The architects employed the museum as a laboratory to explore questions that upscale professional practice too often excludes. Investigating new applications of humble, low-cost materials, their project was informed by concerns for the large environmental consequences of their immediate design decisions, as well as by quiet speculations on domesticity—why do people inhabit space the way they do and is it possible for architects to alter what is desired and expected in residential buildings?

With availability, flexibility, and modesty as guiding criteria, Williams and Tsien experimented with a range of systems and building components. Wooden pallets provided a flexible flooring; stacks of Homasote were carved into wall units and chairs; and polyurethane was employed to create large (11-foot) wedge-shaped units that could be assembled to divide space, to create add-on structures, or to form ceilings and roofs. All of the materials shared commonplace, recycled origins.

Cast polyurethane and Homasote share an equally lowly status; these are not materials associated with the corporate boardroom let alone the design of the new family room. Any substance, however, in the right hands at the right time, has the potential to affect taste. Williams’ and Tsien’s wall of laminated Homasote has a warm feeling and subtle coloration, and here polyurethane looks majestic in its defiance of preciousness.

Along the spine of the space, the architects installed a low platform of common lumber that served as a dining area, workplace, and bed. Specific activities that occur in the home were not sequestered but, on the contrary, actively shared space, expressing a simultaneity that exists in most lives. A rug—which actually looked like the back of one—was tufted in areas to note various functions. This horizontal plane produced a spatial legibility infrequently considered in the procession of small, fragmented rooms seen in most houses and apartments.

Williams and Tsien used this exhibition to dream the possible—to consider social and environmental issues with a sense of focus and play that real-life practice discourages. As visually powerful as this installation was, its most persuasive lesson asks architects to take action in society, to think about the consequence of their esthetic choices. Positive action is based on a new perception of visual phenomena informed by environmental and social dynamics; Williams and Tsien chose to grapple with these connections.

Patricia C. Phillips