Architecture is the frame humans create for their own actions. But before architecture, thoughts lie in wait – experiences and insights collected and embodied into little things we find and collect.

Following their "Wunderkammer" contribution to the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, Ingerid Helsing Almaas talked with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien about little things, about inspirations and about a party... Which is now over.

Casa Scaffali, "The House of Shelves". Arsenale, Venice. Photo: Michael Moran-OTTO.

Architects and artists, who deal with the physical world, are often inspired by physical things. Large things, obviously, like landscapes, or like the great masterpieces of architecture. But also by very small things, the kind of things you can put in your pocket. That you find, or buy, or maybe steal. Gifts from others, or physical notes to yourself, collected along the way.

For their exhibit in the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien sent 35 wooden boxes out into the world, to colleagues and friends, and asked them to send back a selection of things that inspired them. The resulting collection of wonderful odds and ends were assembled in a contemporary Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities, in a far corner of the Biennale, in the Casa Scaffali, the “house of shelves”. Far also, it seems, from the statements and the posturing that inevitably takes place in the main Biennale exhibitions. How did the idea of this odd collection arise?

IHA: Where did the idea of this Wunderkammer come from? What were you invited to do?

Billie Tsien: As we interpreted David Chipperfield’s theme ”Common Ground”, he was talking about that which connects us as architects and that which connects us as human beings; what ties us all together. So we responded to that idea.

Tod Williams: We liked that he had asked a lot of people to come together, and we felt that we could extend this sense of community, spreading the branches of this tree a little further.

Wunderkammer in the Casa Scaffali. In the foreground the box from Elías Torres and José Antonio Martínez Lapeña. Photo: Michael Moran-OTTO

IHA: The idea of the Wunderkammer has been the object of scholarly attention as well as literary fiction for centuries. Were these more academic connotations of a collection of objects present in your minds? Or did you name your collection along the way, after the boxes started to come in?

BT: While we were aware of the Wunderkammer as an historical phenomenon, it is the experience of visiting the collections of other people that influenced us. Amazing places like John Soane's house, or Deyrolle, the store of stuffed animals in Paris, Thomas Edison's workshop, and the Mercer Museum outside Philadelphia.

The experience of being surrounded by another person's objects of obsession is thrilling, as you alternately identify and disavow your connection to them by whether you find the objects fascinating or boring.

In our own lives, we are surrounded by objects; that hat mould over there, or bird feathers from Peru... Things that you love. Those things have a lot of meaning to us. So we thought we would try to avoid architecture per se, and ask people – mostly architects, but there are also critics, and artists – to fill a box with things that inspired them. And we asked that they not be related to architecture.

Peter Eisenman, a branch. On the shelf above is a folding chair from Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey.

Matthew Baird. Drawings of Bairds projects were assembled in a series of books, which was then burned through with a laser.

Please, no architecture

TW: We said “Please, no architecture”. Billie and I are architects and we are partners, but we share much more than that. We share a love of life and other interests, and that was what we wanted to express and explore. So we went to our teachers, former employers, people who worked for us, friends, and asked them to participate.

BT: Peter Eisenman was Tod’s former teacher, Richard Meier was a former employer...

TW: Matthew Baird had worked for us... Karen Stein, who is a critic and writer... Murray Moss, who ran the iconic design store Moss... Ursula von Rydingsvard, a sculptor. We even asked our son, who is an industrial designer.

And we also thought it would be interesting to spread it internationally, so we asked more people: An architect friend that Billie has supported, Francis Kere from Burkina Faso... We went to Toyo Ito, who we met in Japan in 1983. We are not really close, but we have always liked him and admired his independent spirit and his sense of humanity.

IHA: There can’t have been much time to do an extensive project like this? Chipperfield launched his theme in January 2012, with the biennale opening in August?

TW: That’s another reason we selected this way of working. We went to a cabinetmaker who is a personal friend, and asked him to make the boxes – sturdy and utilitarian, nothing special, with names on them. We liked the idea of the boxes getting dents and marks from travel, acquiring a personality. But that’s where we got ourselves into trouble, because the boxes were heavier than we expected.

BT: The moment when we got the FedEx bill was very intense... And then of course some people, like Toyo Ito, filled his box with rocks, and made it even heavier!

TW: Thank God he didn’t want it back.

IHA: And Elias Torres chopped his up into bits? And of course needed another box to put the first one in?

TW: No! His box arrived as a box and then unfolded and folded itself into a small house. We were astonished when we got them back. Virtually everyone responded.

BT: And in the most generous way. I think it’s a trait of so many creative people that, for better or for worse, they throw themselves into things and generally overdo it. But the generosity of people’s contributions was very, very moving. It ranged from people really just literally filling the box with things...

Glenn Murcutt and Wendy Lewin sent a collection of very personal things, including the golden caps they were wearing when they got married.

Glenn Murcutt and Wendy Lewin. Mozart Piano Concerto, Aalto vase, fishing net and an Atomic coffee maker in cast aluminium.

Juhani Pallasmaa. Books, pictures, films, notes... And his knife, very precious to a Finn...

TW: Glenn Murcutt and Wendy Lewin, for example, filled their box with very personal things.

IHA: Juhani Pallasmaa’s passport, his books, his knife?

BT: I asked Glenn and Wendy what those things that looked like dunce caps were. And Glenn said, “Well, somebody made them for Wendy and me to wear when we got married”. So when they got married they were each wearing these golden pointed caps...

TW: Which is also kind of a Venetian thing.

BT: As the boxes came back, it was like having your friends around you.

TW: Everyone had a little story to their choices. We had thought that we would open the boxes and take things out and distribute them, but many people had created boxes that were really set pieces. Only a few, like Glenn and Wendy or W.G. Clark and Jennifer Luce, had just packed their boxes with stuff.

But the box meant you had to restrain yourself. I was totally impressed with Thom Mayne, for example, who filled the box with, as he called it, “a piece of gold bullion”.

Thom Mayne. The model of all models. The golden supermodel that filled the box is a kind of concentrate of all Mayne's projects.

BT: We had said specifically “Don’t send anything architectural”, and he sent something that is so architectural it’s like all of his buildings crammed into a box.

IHA: It was like the model of all models...

TW: And Zumthor came through with his pigments. We were pretty surprised.

BT: But in the end I think it is quite a true expression of the personalities. Peter Zumthor, for example, was very much wanting to control, without seeming to control. But he was very much in control.

TW: He had an intense and clear idea.

BT: Yes. We sent him the box, and he sent it back to Venice empty. And then he had his assistant come and bring the pigments and put them on top of the box, in a very precise arrangement which looked imprecise. So everyone in one way or another perhaps revealed themselves more than they might have if they had been asked to reveal themselves, which is nice.

Peter Zumthor. The box he sent back was empty, but his assistant came after with the bottles and jars of pigments, which then were carefully positioned on top of the box.

"We sent Zumthor the box, and he sent it back to Venice empty. And then he had his assistant come and bring the pigments. He was very much in control."

A most lovely party

IHA: It may be a strange question, but was there a result? Of the exhibition? Did it lead to anything? We’re discussing it as a portrait of something that was – people send stuff, a piece of of what they already are...

But in the context of the Biennale, where you are always looking for the next thing, for what is going to happen, you can perceive a certain nostalgia, in a way, about the Wunderkammer?

BT: I feel like it was... the most lovely party of people who come all together and then they leave. And that’s all it’s supposed to be.

TW: I felt it in my heart. Having said that, as we did this, and as we realised it was expensive, we in a way hoped that someone else would say “Why don’t we take it, and show it somewhere else.” But that didn’t happen. And so everything went back home, and in the end what is left is a book, which will be published by Yale University Press in the fall. It’s a book full of secrets. And maybe that’s nostalgic, and maybe that’s not right, but it honours the effort.

Only two people didn’t want their boxes back. Richard Meier, we have his piece, and Toyo Ito. I wanted his as well, but it was dumped by the Italians! It’s very upsetting. I would have treasured that. But maybe it’s correct – it’s gone back to rubble and memory.

Toyo Ito. Pieces of rubble gathered in the village of Sanriku, which was destroyed by the tsunami in 2011.

Speaking quietly to the world

IHA: The sense of community that you talked about as a starting point... That is the professional community. But how did you think about the visiting public? Obviously there are a lot of architects that visit the biennale, it’s a bit of a trade show, but did you perceive your exhibit as part of a wider context? Was it a way for architects speak to the world? Or more about how architects speak to each other?

TW: I have to admit I didn’t think about that at all. I was totally happy if it was just like a piece of Venice, that someone finds or they don’t find, and those who find it will know the secret, and those who don’t, don’t. Anyone who chooses to go that far into the bush is rewarded. Or not. That’s my take.

"I was totally happy for the exhibit just to be like a piece of Venice, that someone finds, or they don’t find."

BT: Of course people who go there have some interest in architecture. But I was hoping that it would be something that would be accessible and interesting to anyone. To children, to architects, to non-architects... That you would walk through that Venice garden and find something amazing. And it didn’t make any difference whether you had any other knowledge. It was a meeting on everybody’s common ground, because everyone could find something interesting there.

TW: Billie’s right, we wanted it to speak... That’s again why we didn’t want architecture to be part of it. Because we didn’t want the grandiosity that we sometimes see... And the other thing is, we believe that the things transcend our own architectural interests. The little Japanese kitty being the perfect example. There are toys and sweet things that children love. Elías Torres’ box shows the child in him and his partner, José Antonio Martínez Lapeña...

Claudy Jongstra, a Dutch textile artist who normally works
with large-scale installations.

BT: Like the box with the balls of wool pouring out... Claudy Jongstra is a textile artist. This was much more about a quiet way of reaching people. One of the things I always feel when I go to a foreign country is that I want to read the fiction of that country. It tells me so much more than the facts. We wanted in some way to show much more about these people and their practices, than other more architecturally descriptive parts of the Biennale.

The peripheral vision of inspiration

IHA: It’s in the nature of the architectural exhibit that you never see the thing itself, you always see the picture of the thing. That’s the difference between an art exhibition and an architecture exhibition: You never come face to face with the work of architecture in an exhibition, it is always remote. And it in a way that belittles architecture, because architecture is about physical presence, and you never ever get it in that way. But in your exhibition you actually saw the stuff, and not a picture of the stuff. Which was wonderful. And when it’s composed in the way that it was, in that space...

TW: We had asked for the most intimate space they could possibly give us. But we arrived in Venice on one of the hottest possible days ever and of course the Casa Scaffali was just a complete mess with dirt, leaves, and old cardboard boxes... We thought we might fail, you know, it could have been a complete mess. But at least we would have our own little world.

IHA: The only thing mentioned on your board, outside the exhibition, the only clue, as it were, was the word “inspiration”. You had asked people to contribute things that inspired them. What does that actually mean?

Marlon Blackwell. The combination of Johnny Cash giving the finger and the three fragile bird skulls... –Very tough, very American, says Tod Williams. To the left the turned sticks from Brad Cloepfil. Below the box of clay from Francis Kere.

TW: People took that very differently I think. We left it absolutely open-ended. Marlon Blackwell sent a mysterious box, with an image of Johnny Cash giving the finger... It was so tough and American, and next to the image were these tiny delicate bird skulls. It seemed to speak to me about vulnerability.

But we never asked anyone to explain why they did what they did. I think some people really saw and took on the issue of inspiration, and others less so.

BT: But people, both architects and non-architects, always ask “Where do you get your ideas?”, and “what are you inspired by?”. For us, and I think for many architects we know, there are the usual things: the programme, the site, and what the client wants... But then there are also very random things. Often when our son was young we would spend a huge amount of time at the Museum of Natural History in New York. There are very many inspiring ideas there, or things you would see, that would come back into our work.

And it was that peripheral vision of inspiration I think that we were trying to get from people.

"It was that peripheral vision of inspiration I think that we were trying to get from people."

TW: As architects we are taught to be inspired by the masters, or by precedent or place, but in fact, the greatest freedom we have is from that peripheral vision that Billie describes. Going to a dance performance and dreaming for a moment – and it could be the light, or a costume – or a pebble on the beach, that kind of thing. I think Juhani Pallasmaa did that well – his books, the loaf of bread...

Chen Chen and Kai Williams cut the box into bits and stuck them back together into a compact, heavy block.

IHA: But those peripheral moments are somehow also the moments that are most mysterious, or where the most inexplicable things happen? And that you most often don’t explain to people, or you’re not asked to? Anyway, it’s a short step from mysterious to mystifying...

Architects also often portray themselves this way, as inspired, perhaps to retain some of that freedom that I think you identified very precisely. In our communication with others, with the general public, with clients, we reserve an area for ourselves that we call ”inspiration”, which is not questionable. We can allow perhaps colleagues in, people who accept that mode of being. Do we run the risk of alienating people who are not part of that?

TW: I understand, and I think that’s right. I have two reactions: One, I think that space, that cushion of air, or mystery, does permit us a little bit of wiggle room. The creative process is never done, and you’re always adjusting the design and the idea. So it gives you a certain amount of freedom.

Two: The one thing I feel that we are terrible at, as architects, is revealing the mess of our lives. We are always making things, and then we see the result, like in your magazine, and it is so pristine, so perfectly photographed and framed, that we don’t actually reveal that we need to live among a certain amount of warmth and mess and mystery. The kind of chaos that also cushions our lives at home.

From Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, a rock.

IHA: But we are professionals, we handle million dollar projects, you don’t want warmth and mess... Or do you find that your clients also appreciate that?

TW: Well, people more and more choose us to get a little bit of that.

BT: In our own practice we are really bolstered by a kind of rigour and professionalism that essentially comes from other people in our studio. Which allows the luxury of a little more mess to happen at the top. If it happened all the way through the process of design would be terrible.

TW: But, you know, there is always mess at the bottom too, Billie. The things that even the best of us, the most professional of us, can’t get quite right. You know, the search for perfection... Accepting a certain amount of imperfection is really what we do. And you have to achieve that balance. But largely, we’re taught to be perfect, and we fail. That’s a very difficult thing for all of us.

IHA: Your buildings do not give the impression of imperfection and mess? They are very pristine, very selective things?

TW: That’s true. Because we keep asking them questions, about how they can be more what they should be; which is to be built better and to have relationships to one another, and to other objects in life. That doesn’t necessarily mean controlling, but like there is a discourse there that one could imagine.

"I think that what we learn as we mature is accepting that there are certain things you can’t control."

IHA: There is a significant distance between accepting and controlling?

BT: I think that what we learn as we mature is accepting that there are certain things you can’t control. When you are younger you think you can control everything, and you think it’s important to control everything. But then you learn that it is only realistic to control certain things, and it makes sense to accept other conditions. And that’s the balance between the things you are controlling and the things you are accepting.

Billie Tsien and Tod Williams.

Time to go

IHA: So all the pieces went back?

TW: Yes. All of them.

IHA: Like you said, it was like a party.

TW: Yes. I hope they’re happy with them, I would love to see them one day come back together. But when the party is over, it’s over. It’s time to go on.

BT: To the next party...


Participants in "Wunderkammer":
Marwan Al-Sayed
Anthony Ames
Matthew Baird
Shigeru Ban
Marlon Blackwell
Will Bruder
Wendell Burnette
Johan Celsing
Chen Chen & Kai Williams
Taryn Christoff & Martin Finio
Annie Chu & Rick Gooding
WG Clark
Brad Cloepfil
Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio & Charles Renfro
Peter Eisenman
Steven Holl
Stephen Iino
Toyo Ito
Bijoy Jain
Claudy Jongstra
Francis Kéré
Jennifer Luce
Thom Mayne
Richard Meier
Murray Moss
Glenn Murcutt & Wendy Lewin
Sheila O'Donnell & John Tuomey
Juhani Pallasmaa
Mack Scogin & Merrill Elam
Brigitte Shim & Howard Sutcliffe
Karen Stein
José Antonio Martinez Lapena & Elias Torres
Ursula von Rydingsvard
Peter Zumthor

Photographs: Michael Moran, TWBTA, IHA. Portrait of TW & BT by Thomas Grimes.

If you want to know even more: The book Wunderkammer from Yale University Press is out now.