Obamas tap two firms to design Obama Center in Chicago

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Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who will lead the design team for the Obama Center in Chicago.| Photograph from firm’s website

WASHINGTON — After almost a yearlong search for an architect, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle announced on Thursday two firms will design their Obama Center on Chicago’s South Side — adding a Chicago shop that never even applied for the coveted commission.

The 30-member husband-and-wife New York firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien bested an international field of architecture stars in part because of the “chemistry” that developed between the two couples, said Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the Barack Obama Foundation.

They were not strangers.

On July 28, 2014, Obama awarded Williams and Tsien the 2013 National Medal of Arts, recognizing the New York modernist firm “for their contributions to architecture and arts education.”

Nesbitt said the Obamas admired among other Williams and Tsien structures, the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E 60th St., an 11-story glass and stone complex with a jagged roof providing space for multiple functions and community activities.

The striking but minimalist Logan Center is a contrast to the more flashy, boxy National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening Sept. 24 on the National Mall here after Obama cuts the ribbon. It was designed by David Adjaye, who was also a finalist for the Obama Center.

University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, designed by renowned architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. | Sun-Times library

University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, designed by renowned architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. | Sun-Times library

The Obamas’ wanted to select architects before deciding whether their Center is located in Washington Park or Jackson Park, conceived in 1871 by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and his partner Calvert Vaux.

Nesbitt said “One of the things that stood out” in the Williams and Tsien proposal — which was not made public — was the “respect” they showed for the Olmsted and Vaux park designs, Chicago’s rich architectural legacy and “the history and the incredible potential of the neighboring community.” The Obamas want their Center to trigger an economic renewal for the area.

Paul Goldberger, an architecture critic who is advising the Chicago-based foundation, characterized Williams and Tsien designs as “thoughtful, dignified, beautiful and understated,” qualities that “characterize much of the Obama presidency” and hopefully will be translated into the design, he said.

“The building will have to speak for itself, ultimately,” Goldberger said.

The design of the Obama Center also will have to incorporate a host of elements: a library with the Obama archives; an interactive and immersive museum about his presidency; space for ever-changing programs; likely a garden; an Institute of Civic Engagement; foundation offices; an area for outdoor performances; and a “presidential suite” for the Obamas; and dining facilities.

Williams and Tsien will lead the design effort with Interactive Design Architects at 308 W. Erie added as a partner, apparently to make sure a Chicago firm was in the mix for the massive project. The 10-member firm, led by Dina Griffin, was not one of the 144 firms submitting proposals to the foundation last year, Nesbitt said in a briefing call with reporters.

The list of 144 was cut to seven finalists last November. They all met with the president and first lady by March. Griffin, a South Side resident, also met with Obamas in the White House. The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that there also were other meetings, including with Williams/Tsien, SHoP Architects and Snøhetta — all New York shops — and John Ronan Architects, the only Chicago firm among the seven finalists.

In an architecture world dominated by white men, Obama, the nation’s first African-American president and father of two daughters, picked a team with an Asian-American woman, Tsien, and an African-American woman, Griffin.

Dina Griffin

Dina Griffin

Architects in the running for the Obama Center were encouraged by the Foundation to create collaborations and share the business with minority-owned firms, and Griffin’s company was sought out by several of the contenders as a potential partner.

The Obamas decided on Chicago’s South Side on May 12, 2015, after weighing bids for sites near Harlem in New York City and in Honolulu, where Obama was born. The first stage of the architecture competition was launched in August 2015.

The Obamas and the Foundation created a Design Advisory Team to help pick architects for the Center. The team included the husbands of Caroline Kennedy and Meryl Streep — a designer and a sculptor — with Chicagoans Fred Eychaner and Bob Clark also centrally involved, the Sun-Times reported last January.

The Foundation has started the massive fundraising needed to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to construct and endow the Center. At present, with Obama still in office, there are self-imposed restrictions as to whom the foundation will take money from. Nesbitt said he anticipated he will “modify” the “guidelines” once the Obamas are out of the White House.

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