Architect competition launched for Chicago’s Obama Presidential Center

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WASHINGTON — The Barack Obama Foundation on Wednesday launched a competition to plan and design the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side, inviting an undisclosed number of architectural firms to jump in the contest.

Foundation chairman Martin Nesbitt said in a conference call with reporters that Chicago architects were solicited to bid in “disproportionate” numbers, with the first round of submissions due on Sept. 16.

Last May, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle announced their decision to locate their presidential center in Chicago. Wednesday marks a big next step, even as the decision to locate the Center in Washington Park or Jackson Park has yet to be made.

The foundation released a document called a “Request for Qualifications,” which offered a clue on whether the Obamas will return full time to their Kenwood home after they leave the White House in January 2017.

The RFQ said the Obama center should include a “presidential suite for President and Mrs. Obama,” as well as space for a library, museum, indoor and outdoor performances, healthy dining facilities and offices for the foundation.

And in a nod to one of Michelle Obama’s signature projects — her White House vegetable garden — the RFQ said the center also should have land dedicated to community gardening.


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The decision on whether to locate the facility in Washington Park or Jackson Park will be deferred until the foundation gets input from the architecture team and a cadre of economic consultants studying the two potential sites.

The RFQ includes an overview on each of the historic parks, designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and does not address questions raised by park preservation groups.

Nesbitt said while non-U.S. firms were asked to bid, “The mix is heavily skewed towards American architects. “

Architecture expert Paul Goldberger, the former New York Times and New Yorker critic, hired to advise the foundation, added, “I would think it’s at least 90 percent, I would guess.”

Of the U.S. firms in the mix, “Yeah, it’s pretty skewed, you know, to Chicagoans,” Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt said the foundation “cast a pretty broad net” in identifying firms asked to respond to the RFQ.

The foundation has been working with design experts for the past few months on the RFQ, the first of two phases in the design competition.

Nesbitt declined to say how many firms were asked to submit responses to the RFQ. “I don’t know how relevant that is,” he said.

According to the RFQ, applicants are being told to “not provide any designs, sketches, or conceptual ideas for the building at this time.”

Expanding on this, Goldberger said in the call, “We’re not asking them for a design. We’re trying to get to know them.” In this phase, “this is very much not a design competition.”

“This is the beginning,” Nesbitt said, “and so at this stage of the process, their ideas of design are less important.”

The RFQs must be submitted by Sept. 16, and firms making the short list will be asked to respond to a more specific “Request for Proposal” sometime in late 2015.

The president and first lady are targeting a decision on the architect to be made by late 2015 or early 2016.

As for the second phase, “the RFP will not require a full design competition effort as part of the candidates’ submissions. It will, however, require a defined, limited effort from each candidate to present creative ideas in response to the Foundation’s project goals and site information provided in the RFP.”

As in the site-selection process, the RFQ deals mainly in broad, open-ended general strokes about the vision the foundation and the Obamas have for their center.

The mission of the Foundation, the RFQ said, is to be “inspiring and empowering people to take action on the big challenges of our time.”

Besides the library, “interactive and immersive” museum and foundation offices, the center also will provide space for:

• Convening of activists, thinkers and leaders

• Live and recorded video production.

• Sports

• Places for “individual reflection and meditation”

The foundation, created in January 2014, is responsible for raising the hundreds of millions of dollars it will take to build and endow the Center.

A goal of the Obamas’ is for the center to create an economic engine to revitalize a part of the South Side where they lived, worked and started their family through linked public and private investments.

The University of Chicago submitted the winning proposal for the Obama center, but its exact role has not been detailed. The RFQ said the school pledged staff time and temporary office space for the foundation.

Several organizations will develop the center: the foundation; the City of Chicago, which controls the parkland; the National Archives and Records Administration; and the U. of C.

Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet

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