And Our Obama Center Design Winner is…

Inspiring, Interactive, International: The winning entry was submitted by Zhu Wenyi Atelier of Beijing, China

The people have spoken. And now our judges have, too. And as it turns out, they mostly agree.

In a lively, interactive event last week that drew online voters and viewers from Iran, Indonesia, Italy, China, Africa, and across the U.S., as well as in-house expertise from an eminent panel of award-winning international architects, BuiltWorlds’ Project Innovation Series presented its most ambitious show yet: the expert jury deliberations and awards ceremony for an alternative, crowdsourced Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.


Oh say can you… Winning circular message.

“The Obama Presidential Center project is very close to our hearts, and is certainly very important for this city and surrounding community,” said Dr. Imdat As, CEO and founder of, the Boston-based architecture crowdsourcing site that had hosted the competition online since February. “At Arcbazar, we believe that the procedures of design acquisition — especially for such important public projects — should be participatory, democratic, and transparent,” he explained.

With this project, the unofficial content purposely offered an alternative to the traditional RFP model. The symbolism was intentional, noted Dr. As. “In an ever flattening world, Obama’s presidency had (and has) an immense impact on all of us as ‘world citizens’, so it is both appropriate and necessary, to source this design through the larger, international community,” he added.

Co-sponsored by ArcbazarBuiltWorldsCannonDesign, AIA ChicagoDwell on DesignGreenApple CampusAutodesk, and Forum8, our event was not affiliated with the Obama Foundation‘s ongoing, official contest to solicit designs for the upcoming Obama Presidential Center (OPC) on Chicago’s South Side.

The two contests both share the same proposed location, but only one will actually break ground.

“Given that reality, we were just blown away by the breadth of the response and the depth and quality of the submittals,” said BuiltWorlds’ show producer Walker Thisted, himself an architect, and last week master of ceremonies for the event. “Also, we were so incredibly honored to have such accomplished professionals agree to act as jurors, both digitally and here in our studio, for this competition.”

  • To watch a re-broadcast of the ‘live’ show, click here. (In a hurry? Watch the jury awards at 1:31:00.)
August panel: Our onsite jury (from left) Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido, JAHN Architects; Dawn Schuette, AIA Chicago; Tim Swanson, CannonDesign; Kees Kaan, KAAN Architecten; and moderator Andrew Balster of Archeworks. To see a complete list of all the competition’s professional and academic jurors, click here.

History + Legacy

Even so, the power of connection to the historic significance of this particular project was not lost on the judges. Moderator and jury foreman Andrew Balster, executive director of Archeworks, even recalled being in Grant Park on Election Night in November 2008 when Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States. “Leaving that event that night was probably the most inspiring moment that I’ve ever had in the City of Chicago,” he recounted. “It was really, really emotional and there was a true sense of hope.”

Our winners emerged from the scrutiny of thousands of voters online, followed by an academic filter of 28 architectural deans and professors that winnowed the field down from 33. Then, our jury of five met thoughtfully at our event to reward those whose visions they found most inspiring and fitting.

Below, the top three winners, with select judges’ comments…

  • On the air! From left, Gonzalez-Pulido, SchuetteSwanson, and Kaan discussed deliberations.

GONZALEZ-PULIDO: We struggled a lot with this project. It had a lot of excess, but a lot of merit… A very powerful building, very democratic… Could be a great catalyst for its surrounding community;

SCHUETTE: What I found interesting about this was its linking to the community… I like the armature that goes out to its temporary facilities… Reaches beyond the building, which makes for a nice metaphor;

SWANSON: My initial, gut reaction was that this was too formal… But then it becomes a circus in some of the most delightful ways… Not just a building, but a place for engagement and collaboration;

KAAN: This was the only team that had a narrative about linking the project to the parks… referring to [Frederick Law] Olmsted (who designed landscapes nearby for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition).

  • NOTE: Our judges learned after-the-fact that China’s Zhu Wenyi Atelier had also submitted a very similar design, set on a different site, to win a 2014 Chicago Architectural Club competition, which had sought ideas from “local” architects. Technically, this did not bar entry from our 2016 contest.
  • To explore all the submissions, including the 12 finalists, visit Arcbazar’s competition gallery here.