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Oprah part of Obama’s informal advisers on president’s future

WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama searches for an architect for his Obama Center, I’m told his circle of informal advisers helping him map out his post presidency and what his center should be doing includes Oprah Winfrey, interior designer Michael Smith and Chicago builder Bob Clark, among others.

This group is working behind the scenes as the Obama Foundation, led by Obama friend Marty Nesbitt, is overseeing the architectural competition, soliciting last week about 36 firms to submit their qualifications by Sept. 16.

Winfrey is the close Obama friend who oversees a business empire. Smith helped redecorate the White House residence. Clark is the CEO of Clayco and, with Smith, was appointed by Obama to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

The three are among the informal cadre of folks in the Obama orbit led by Lynn Taliento, a partner in the McKinsey & Company Washington office brought on board last year to help the Obamas structure their future.

Though Nesbitt said last week he would not name the architecture firms invited to reply to the “Request for Qualifications,” for the Center, to be located on Chicago’s South Side, the Sun-Times has confirmed through several sources the firms include:

  • From Chicago: Perkins + Will; Jeanne Gang, Helmut Jahn and an office of the Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
  • From New York: Ennead Architects, LLP, the firm that designed the Clinton Library and Museum in Little Rock and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the firm whose New York projects include the redesign of the Lincoln Center and the High Line. In 1999, the Chicago based MacArthur Foundation awarded “genius grants” to founders Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio.

The New York firms confirmed to the Sun-Times that the Obama Foundation invited them to bid.

  • Also: the London-based Adjaye Associates, with the glassy design of David Adjaye’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture now taking shape on the National Mall in Washington.

In a letter Nesbitt wrote to the invited architects, he said “a presidential center is the single most visible symbol of the legacy and aspirations of the president whose name it bears.”

Whether the competition is indeed open – or if a firm not invited to bid even has a chance – is an open question.

Nesbitt, in a call with reporters last week, made no mention that the foundation welcomed unsolicited bids.

“It’s a little confusing to me whether it is open or not,” Paul Peissner, the acting director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois, Chicago told me.

The quick turnaround for the RFQ is easy for a big firm; a challenge for a smaller shop, Peissner said.

Taking this route, Peissner said, means the foundation “is not as open to ideas as it could be.”

A spokesman for the foundation, asked to clarify the situation on Tuesday, said, “The RFQ has been posted on our website, and anyone who is interested is invited to submit a response. At the same time, the foundation and its advisers are soliciting responses from a number of firms with relevant strengths and experience. This process will enable us to present the president and first lady with a broad list of options, including architects representing a range of approaches and styles.”