Architect Billie Tsien on Her Appointment to the U.S. Fine Arts Commission
In February, as somewhat expected, the Biden Administration revoked the controversial “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” executive order, a Trump Administration initiative aimed at making classicism the “preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings. Given the ruckus that it initially created, the effort’s demise came as a bit of an anti-climax.
Earlier this month, however, fallout from that initiative continued. The new administration asked for the resignations of four members of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts: Justin Shubow, the broad chair who spearheaded the executive order; landscape architect Perry Guillot; architect Steven Spandle; and artist Chas Fagan. They were replaced in turn by Peter Cook, a principal at HGA Architects; Hazel Ruth Edwards, a professor and chair of Howard University’s Department of Architecture; Justin Garrett Moore, the program officer of the Humanities in Place program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and Billie Tsien, a partner at Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.
When news broke of the appointments, I reached out to Tsien, whose work I have long admired. Prior to the first meeting of the reconfigured commission, we talked about the role she hopes to play and her desire for open dialogue and discussion.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
BT: Billie Tsien
Let’s talk about your appointment. How did that happen? Who approached you?
These things work in odd ways. It was actually a friend who asked, “Would you be interested in getting involved in the Commission on Fine Arts?” It turns out she knew someone who was involved in looking for people who might come on the commission.
A few years back I became President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is a somewhat slow moving, extremely, august organization. Because of the pandemic, I’ve had an extra year as president, so it’s been four years now and I’m finishing up. Like the fine arts commission, it’s a voluntary thing. I’ve enjoyed helping to direct an organization that is deeply involved in culture, in thinking about the greater fabric of the country. And in the time that I’ve been Arts and Letters President, we expanded the membership. For 150 years it’s always been capped at 250. Even though the population of the country at large has increased.
By ten times at least.
But the range and perception of people who are recognized as important thinkers, writers, painters, and artists, has exploded in recent decades. And so, it was very much the Academy’s desire to see the organization start to reflect the demographics of the country. Not only in numbers, but in the amazing richness of creativity. I think it’s a much more diverse group now than it was.
The Fine Arts Commission is of course completely different. I haven’t started yet, but it does seem like an opportunity to think about the many ways that the cultural fabric of this country, the design fabric, has been shredded and torn apart. And how it might be possible to pull it back together into a whole. And not a whole that’s in one particular direction. I certainly understand the desire, the yearning, for something that feels cohesive. I respect that. I think our own work has always been about a sense of solidity, cohesion and connection to what’s around, even as it tries to be in the present world. So I think that there are ways of doing that, ways that don’t have to be so doctrinaire. That’s what I’m hoping I can contribute.
The executive order was a disaster for everyone involved, even classical architects. I think one of the first things the commission might do is ask some fundamental questions: who are we as a people, and what do we stand for culturally?
I agree. And we’re jumping right into it. Our first meeting will be remote. I don’t know how public it’s going to be. But it will be interesting because there are four new commissioners and three existing ones. And I guess the first thing that I would like to see is a civil dialogue, one that really allows for an open sense of discussion. I don’t remember the exact wording of Trump’s executive order, but it wasn’t about that. It was not about dialogue. A number of architects and organizations, including the AIA, had a very visceral reaction to the executive order. But for me, the most troubling aspect of it was, there was no discussion. It was a mandate. And at this point, given today’s building technologies, what does classical even mean? I’m convinced that the whole idea of a rigid set of rules is misguided. It has to begin with a philosophy. A set of rules makes it too easy to get around. Philosophy is a deeper discussion.
And a harder discussion too.
For people that don’t know or may have forgotten, what’s the purview of the commission? What do they actually do?
Well, I’m pretty much one of those people who don’t know! I haven’t gotten the briefing papers yet, but essentially it involves reviewing all federal buildings, but also important design projects, within Washington DC. That also includes memorials, sculpture, coins, medals.
I didn’t know it included that as well.
Yes. Commemorative medals. A surprise to me too.
But totally interesting. I mean, there’s no reason why our commemorative medals shouldn’t look nice and somehow reflect our civic values.
Right. In a way one could say that the commission’s purview is incredibly provincial, because it’s focused primarily on DC, its surrounding areas, and the federal buildings. But it’s also quite broad in scope, because there are a lot of federal buildings.
They’re one of the biggest landlords in the country. They have an insane amount of building stock. That’s why when they went green, it was a big deal. They can move the needle.
Yeah, so you’re pretty much talking to a person who does not know what they’re doing yet who is only minimally aware of what her responsibilities are. I’ve been studying the website, reading this huge book I received, trying to figure it out, talking to some people who have been on the commission in the past. But, of course, the circumstances of each commission are different.
I think you’re the perfect person for this. You have the right amount of intelligence, taste, and useful ignorance to do a great job. Useful ignorance is a very powerful tool.
I like that very much. I am going to credit you and use that. And, hopefully, I can wield it in some useful ways.
Featured image: National Mall, Washington, D.C., via Wikipedia.