Obamas choose NYC husband-wife design team

Two weeks to the day after our distinguished architectural jury had selected a crowdsourced prizewinner here for an alternative design of the upcoming Obama Presidential Center (OPC) on Chicago’s South Side, the Obama Foundation announced its own official winner. And like the unlikely two-term U.S. President that the highly anticipated project will honor, the victor was not the presumptive favorite among the acclaimed seven finalists, chosen last December from a global field of more than 140.

On June 30, a “thrilled” Obama Foundation Chairman Martin Nesbitt announced that the modernist team of NYC-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners (TWBTA) and Chicago’s Interactive Design Architects (IDEA) had been chosen to design the OPC. TWBTA “stood out in [its] commitment to exploring, together with the Foundation, the best ways of creating an innovative center for action that inspires communities and individuals to take on our biggest challenges,” explained Nesbitt. IDEA “brings local knowledge and a track record for delivering excellence to large, complex civic projects,” he added.

“the Obamas cast a vote in favor of architecture that values craft over computer-driven blobs, subtle experience over the sugar high of eye candy, and quiet clusters of buildings over singular structures that scream for attention”

— Blair Kamin, Architecture critic, Chicago Tribune

Though warmly received, the lower-key choice still represented something of an upset, especially in the sensational aftermath of last month’s high-profile withdrawal of filmmaker George Lucas and his controversial plans to build a $300-million, windowless, volcano-like Museum of Narrative Art on the downtown lakefront. In the wake of that perceived civic failure, most observers had fully expected the OPC design to go to the splashier, Tanzanian-born David Adjaye, whose signature work, the $500-million Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open this fall on the National Mall in Washington DC. The London-based Adjaye also was believed to be President Obama’s favorite architect.

Similarly, handicappers also had given better odds for fellow finalists John Ronan, the field’s lone Chicago-born lead; and Italian “starchitect” Renzo Piano, already a winner of most, if not all, of the profession’s major international awards. Taking a swipe at the Lucas Museum’s much-maligned design, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin lauded the choice of TWBTA. “In selecting the renowned, husband-wife team of Williams and Tsien, the Obamas cast a vote in favor of architecture that values craft over computer-driven blobs, subtle experience over the sugar high of eye candy, and quiet clusters of buildings over singular structures that scream for attention,” he wrote this week.

  • To listen to Blair Kamin’s interview with NPR about the OPC selection, click here.


“Tod and Billie’s past projects display an incredible commitment to scale, craft and materiality,” said Foundation Executive Director Robbin Cohen. “Their proposal demonstrated an equally genuine commitment to also carefully balance an understanding and respect for the history and potential of the South Side, the Olmsted and Vaux-designed park setting and Chicago’s overall architectural legacy.”

Founded in 1986, TWBTA designs only institutional, academic, civic, and residential work. In 2013, Tsien and Williams both received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. Recent notable projects have included the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia; the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago; and the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla CA. The firm also is now working on the U.S. Embassy complex in Mexico City.

As envisioned, the OPC will include a library for the Obama Presidency’s papers, a museum focused on world history between 2009 to 2017, and space for additional programs and initiatives that promote public service. Two South Side sites remain in contention for the project.

According to Nesbitt and Cohen, TWBTA and IDEA now “will lead a multi-disciplinary and wide-ranging design and engineering effort that may ultimately include as many as 15-20 other firms engaged in various specialty areas all crucial to the Center’s design. The Obama Foundation will manage the design and construction of the Center with a project management team that will be named at a later date.”

Not surprisingly, both firms reacted to their selection with a mixture of glee and humility.

“We are deeply moved,” said Williams and Tsien, in a joint statement. “It is a joy, an honor, and a responsibility to create a place that reflects the optimism and integrity of the President and the First Lady. This has been a transformative presidency and we will work to make a Center that embodies and expands the Obamas’ vision.”

Added IDEA President Dina Griffin, “As a native Chicagoan and resident of the South Side, this project is deeply meaningful to me and I could not be more excited.”

CrowdSource Takeaways?

As news of the selection sank in over the holiday weekend, we reached out to architect Andrew Balster, executive director of Chicago-based Archeworks, and jury foreman for BuiltWorlds’ own unofficial OPC Design Competition, held here June 16. That fun event evaluated impressive entries from 12 finalists solicited from all over the world via Arcbazar.com, a Boston-based architecture crowdsourcing site.

“Like the winning entry at our own event [submitted by Chinese architect Zhu Wenyi Atelier], I would say that TWBTA’s work is similarly known for being sensitive yet responsive to the local context,” explained Balster. “Tod Williams’ and Billie Tsien’s approach for decades has focused on creating buildings that are so tightly integrated into their sites, allowing them to become a negotiation between context and function. Their approach is incredibly honest and thoughtful, so I am thrilled with this news, and confident now that OPC will become one of Chicago’s greatest cultural assets.”

“In this modern age of technology and our ever-expanding, networked society, I think the foundation here missed an immense opportunity ”

— Dr. Imdat As, Arcbazar.com

Arcbazar CEO Dr. Imdat As also is happy for TWBTA and IDEA, he says. But as founder of the design profession’s most untraditional, “democratized” portal for connecting owners with architects, he takes a different view. As can’t help but see the OPC’s very traditional selection process as a missed opportunity.

“It ignored the collective design potential of thousands of designers and architects from all over the world,” said As. “In this modern age of technology and our ever-expanding, networked society, I think the Foundation here missed an immense opportunity to set a visionary example for future public projects… One that is more egalitarian, more participatory, and even more just.”

Even so, modern or not, not every young architect is ready to embrace such a bold vision for such a prominent project. “Public participation is great, but if you open up the doors too wide, you can end up with another ‘Boaty McBoatface‘,” joked one Chicago designer, referencing the already-infamous online contest run by the U.K. Science Ministry earlier this year to name a new polar research ship.

Luckily, those pre-Brexit results were non-binding.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, New York and Washington this summer, the long-discussed vision for the OPC will finally start to take on a truly tangible shape.