Design Duel: Obama Center Contests Eye Finish

“Democracy is messy,” said one former Defense Secretary, rather infamously, a decade or so ago.

That statement still holds true today, of course. But democracy can also be beautiful, and even meaningful. Especially the technology-enabled, globally crowd-sourced kind that Boston’s Arcbazar is graciously hosting right now as part of a fun, international architecture competition to solicit designs for the upcoming Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side.

Co-sponsored by Arcbazar, BuiltWorldsCannonDesign, AIA Chicago, Dwell on DesignGreenApple CampusAutodesk, and Forum8, this unique, non-binding competition actually parallels the ongoing real contest now in its own home stretch and administered by the Obama Foundation. That competition drew 140 entries from around the world, and the field was narrowed to seven in December, as we reported here. An official winner is expected to be announced next month, as well.

In the meantime, however, our own event has gathered tremendous online momentum since we first announced it in late January, and the field remains open to new entrants through May 31. All will culminate here in the BuiltWorlds Studios on June 16 when we host our own Obama Presidential Center Competition and Awards Ceremony, as part of BW’s continuing Project Innovation series. The premise of this contest has asked, “What sort of Presidential Center would the people design?”

To date, the international response has been as overwhelming as it is diverse and creative.

Some 425 competitors have submitted ideas from all over the world, vying for $10,000 in total prizes, plus two additional non-cash awards, and the opportunity to be featured and to present at subsequent national design expositions. “To be honest, we have just been blown away by this,” says BW co-founder Matt Abeles. “We knew this would generate considerable interest, but the magnitude of the response to date has just been jaw-dropping.”

“We knew this would generate considerable interest, but the magnitude of the response to date has just been jaw-dropping”

— Matt Abeles, BuiltWorlds co-founder

“This is, by far, our biggest project to date, so we really have been thrilled by how it has all come together,” adds Arcbazar founder Dr. Imdat As, a Turkish-American architect educated at both M.I.T. and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. (Read our Dec. 2015 profile of Arcbazar here.) The response has also validated Arcbazar’s core credo of “democratizing” public design. “Architecture is a breathing, living medium of documenting our evolution as a society: our challenges, priorities and aspirations,” says As. “[So], it is integral that its creation is not limited to a select few, but is a product of communities coming together to create a small piece of history.”

  • To learn how to enter the competition, attend the June 16 event, or watch it ‘live’, click here.

Of note, the two main cash prizes will be our First Prize Award for $4,200, as selected by our jury of respected industry experts, and a $3,000 Voters’ Choice Award, as determined by online voting to be held ‘live’ between June 1 and June 15. (So, all entries will be visible online as of June 1.) On June 16 at BuiltWorlds, our in-person, international panel of six juror practitioners will be:

Online, a ‘digital’ panel of 28 juror academics, our “Deans List”, will first narrow the field. They are:

NOTE: The winning design will be turned into a Hologram (courtesy Zebra Imaging) and presented at the Dwell on Design exposition in Los Angeles on June 24-26, 2016.

Still in shadow: Who knows what the winning design will look like? This 2014 concept may even make a comeback.