President Obama’s Library To Be Designed By Small Husband-And-Wife Firm

The Obama Foundation selected New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects for its “commitment to scale, craft and materiality.”

President Obama’s Library To Be Designed By Small Husband-And-Wife Firm
[Photo: Lisa Lake/Getty Images]

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects has been awarded the coveted commission to design and build the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. The New York–based practice, led by husband and wife Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, will collaborate with local firm Interactive Design Architects (IDEA) on the project.


In a statement, Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the Obama Foundation, wrote: “Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners stood out in their 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. Interactive Design Architects brings local knowledge and a track record for delivering excellence to large, complex civic projects.”

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 28: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) presents the 2013 National Medal of Arts to Architect Billie Tsien (L) and Tod Williams (2nd L) during an East Room ceremony July 28, 2014 at the White House in Washington, DC. Tsien and Williams were honored for their contributions to architecture and arts education. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The finalists, which Obama announced in December, were chosen from a group of over 140 firms that answered the Foundation’s request for qualifications: David Adjaye, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Tod Williams Billie Tsien, SHoP Architects, Snøhetta, Renzo Piano, and John Ronan (the only Chicago-based architect who was in the running).

The architecture of presidential libraries monumentalizes their legacy as leaders (and often presents a rosier version of their tenure). Case in point: the conservative George W. Bush picked Robert A.M. Stern, a starchitect known for his classically inspired buildings while the liberal Bill Clinton opted for a progressive modernist in James Polshek of Ennead Architects.

The Obama Presidential Center isn’t just an homage to his eight years in office; rather it aspires to be a cultural hub that hosts lectures and events, offers green space for the public, provides educational programming, and healthy food. The Obama Presidential Center will be built in Chicago’s South Side. The foundation is still deciding between two proposed sites, Jackson Park and Washington Park.


In choosing TWBTA, which the Obama Foundation lauded for its “incredible commitment to scale, craft and materiality,” the president is picking a firm whose progressive reputation in the architecture profession matches Obama’s forward-thinking administration. TWBTA earned a 2013 National Medal of Arts from Obama and is best known for designing The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia; the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago; and the Folk Art Museum in New York, which the Museum of Modern Art is tearing down to to make room for its own expansion, designed by TWBTA’s competitor for the library, Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

IDEA is a women-owned architectural practice and its president, Dina Griffin, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and was formerly president of the National Organization of Minority Architects. To the project, she brings invaluable local knowledge. Her firm’s recent work includes the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Eckhardt Research Center.

The President, First Lady, and Foundation were impressed with TWBTA and IDEA’s proposal, which “carefully balances the historic Frederick Law Olmsted and Calbert Vaux setting, Chicago’s history, and the neighborhood’s potential,” Nesbitt says.

“TWBTA’s architecture could be described as thoughtful, dignified, beautiful, and understated and those are are all qualities that can be said to characterize much of the Obama presidency,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who served as an advisor to the Obama Foundation, says in a conference call. “Hopefully they’ll be translated into a building and expressed some way in architectural form. But the building will have to speak for itself.”

The recent process was conceived as more of an ideas stage to select an architect, not a final design for the building, so tangible details are not available. “The real design process begins anew right now,” Goldberger says.


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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.