Praemium Imperiale to Tod Williams and Billie Tsien

John Hill
17. September 2019
Tod Williams & Billie Tsien (Photo © Taylor Jewell)

New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have been named recipients of the Japan Art Association’s 2019 Praemium Imperiale International Arts Award, one of the world's most prestigious awards for architects and other artists.

The husband-and-wife architects that lead their eponymous Manhattan-based firm are one of five laureates in various disciplines:

  • Painting: William Kentridge
  • Sculpture: Mona Hatoum
  • Architecture: Tod Williams & Billie Tsien
  • Music: Anne-Sophie Mutter
  • Theatre/Film: Bando Tamasaburo


This year's awards also includes a Grant for Young Artists:

  • Démos – Philharmonie de Paris
Photo: Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA, 2012 (Photo © Michael Moran)

Williams and Tsien — or Tod and Billie as they're known in architectural circles — established their practice, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, in 1986, though the couple has been working together since 1977. The Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla, California, less than a mile from Louis Kahn's Salk Institute, was the duo's first prominent building, gaining them attention when it was completed in 1995. Since then the firm has focused solely on educational and institutional work with the occasional single-family residence. Other notable projects include the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, which was completed in 2001 but then demolished by neighboring MoMA just 13 years later; the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in Chicago, both completed in 2012; and the ongoing Obama Presidential Center, which they were selected to design in 2013 and is expected to be completed in 2022.

Neurosciences Institute, La Jolla, CA, 1995 (Photo © Michael Moran)
A statement on the Praemium Imperiale website delves into the couple's working process and is worth pasting here:

Williams and Tsien come from different cultural backgrounds and personalities; Williams is characteristically mid-western – honest and hardworking with boundless energy. Tsien, a Chinese-American born in Ithaca, NY describes herself as culturally American and temperamentally Chinese. She is frequently found nose-deep in a novel, broadening her understanding of the world. "If I bring the ripples and the weather, she brings the sun," says Williams. These differences are balanced by a mutual respect, integrity and collaborative spirit reflected in their design approach. "We do get into arguments," Williams laughs. "However, we like working with each other. If we worked individually, the quality of our output would drop by half."

Obama Presidential Center, Chicago, IL, 2022 (Image: DBOX)

Created in 1988, the Praemium Imperiale recognizes artists "for the impact they have had internationally on the arts, and for their role in enriching the global community." Each laureate's award comes with 15 million yen (approximately £100,000), a specially-designed gold medal, and a testimonial letter. Tod Williams & Billie Tsien and the other laureates will be presented their awards by His Imperial Highness Prince Hitachi, Honorary Patron of the Japan Art Association and younger brother of the Emperor Emeritus of Japan, in a ceremony in Japan this October.

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