Hopeful Seven: Obama Library Narrows Field of Architects

Hopeful Seven: Obama Library Narrows Field Of Architects

Lone local: John Ronan's work includes the upcoming IIT Innovation Center, to be built not far from the Obama site.

Lone local: John Ronan’s work includes the upcoming IIT Innovation Center, to be built not far from the Obama site.

by JOHN GREGERSON | Dec 22, 2015

One of contemporary architecture’s most highly anticipated contests is now one step closer to naming a victor. This week, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, acting on behalf of the Obama Foundation, personally selected seven architects –drawn from a field of 140– as finalists to design the future Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side. Surprisingly, only one of the finalists is local. Even more surprising is that that local is not Jeanne Gang, arguably Chicago’s most acclaimed living architect and long considered a front runner for the project.



Instead, John Ronan Architects will vie with two European firms and four NYC-based practices for the coveted commission. Ronan is best known locally for The Poetry Foundation building, completed in 2003, and the Gary Comer Youth Center, a colorful, exuberant work that opened in 2006 on the city’s South Side. Yet another South Side effort is the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship (pictured above), which will break ground next spring.

Southside street cred: Ronan's colorful youth center won high praise and plenty of awards after it opened in 2006. 

Southside street cred: Ronan’s colorful youth center won high praise and plenty of awards after it opened in 2006. 



Among the European finalists is London-based Adjaye Associates, which is headed by Tanzanian-born David Adjaye, whose work now is on display as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. So far dedicated mostly to the public realm, Adjaye is known for his mastery of local vernacular, be it in Oslo, Norway, or Harlem, NY. Sure to be a career capstone, his $500-million Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is due to open on the National Mall next year. Adjaye, a self-described “modernist”, is said to be Mr. Obama’s favorite architect. But modernism informs the work of all the finalists. They are:


Founded in 1981 by Renzo Piano, RPBW is headquartered in Genova, Italy, with offices in NYC. Piano was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1998 and the AIA Gold Medal in 2008. Notable works include the modern wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, the California Academy of Science, and the Whitney Museum’s new building in NYC. Current projects include the Palais de Justice in Paris, France.

Led by three partners – Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro – the firm’s portfolio includes a wide range of major institutional projects including the recently awarded design of the David M. Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago, the renovation of New York’s Lincoln Center, and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. The firm also designed the High Line in NYC. Diller and Scofidio, the firm’s founding principals, were awarded the MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 1999.

Founded in 1996 and based in lower Manhattan, SHoP is led by five principals: Christopher Sharples, Coren Sharples, Gregg Pasquarelli, Kimberly Holden, and William Sharples. SHoP Architects won the Architecture Design award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2009. Notable work includes the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Botswana Innovation Hub in Gaborone, Botswana, and academic buildings at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. SHoP is currently designing Uber’s new headquarters in San Francisco.

Snøhetta has offices in the U.S. and Europe. Its offices in New York and San Francisco are majority owned and operated by architects Craig Dykers and Elaine Molinar, who joined with Kjetil Trædal Thorsen in 1989 to create the studio in Oslo. Snøhetta was awarded the Mies van der Rohe Prize in 2009 for the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet. Snøhetta’s body of work includes the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, the expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State.

Williams and Tsien founded their NYC-based firm in 1974. Their studio — by choice — designs only institutional, academic, civic, and residential work. Awarded the 2013 National Medal of Arts by President Obama, the firm most notably has designed the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, and the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla CA. They are currently designing the U.S. Embassy complex in Mexico City.


“We are excited to see this process moving forward because the Obama Presidential Center will be so much more than a library – this facility will seek to inspire citizens across the globe to better their communities, their countries, and their world,” said Obama Foundation Chairman Martin Nesbitt.

The Obamas will select the winning entry after reviewing proposals, evaluating input from the Foundation and meeting with architects from each finalist. An announcement could come this spring.

For more information about the Foundation and the future Obama Presidential Library, visit http://www.barackobamafoundation.org/ or follow @ObamaFoundation on Twitter.