The Obama Foundation, which is overseeing the design and construction of the library and presidential center that will hold the records of the 44th president, has announced that Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects will design the new Chicago facility. The New York-based firm is highly respected in the architectural world and beat six other blue-chip teams, including Diller Scofidio + Renfro (which created New York’s popular High Line elevated park), Adjaye Associates (which is part of the team responsible for the Smithsonian’s soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture) and Renzo Piano Building Workshop (one of the busiest go-to firms for large cultural and museum projects in the world).
TWBSA will work with the Chicago-based design firm Interactive Design Architects on the facility, which is expected to cost more than $500 million and will include a library, a museum and an office space, as well as space for other activities hosted by the Obama Foundation. Two possible locations in Chicago have been chosen, and both are controversial given that they are in historic public parks.
In selecting TWBSA, the foundation chose a husband-and-wife team widely respected for the depth and integrity of their work, rather than the volume of their production, scale of their typical project or flashiness of their aesthetic vocabulary. Prominent in their portfolio of finished work is the new home of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, in which the architects finessed a seemingly insurmountable challenge: Replicating a historic interior space for a storied collection of impressionist and early 20th-century art within a building that spoke to the design ideas of the 21st century. They also designed the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, completed in 2001, a building that became the source of heated controversy when it was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art and then demolished in 2014.
That issue divided architects and critics around the world, with TWBSA’s ill-fated Folk Art Museum championed as a local structure with design integrity, caught up in the maw of an insatiable giant determined to grow at all costs. It made TWBSA, in effect, sympathetic underdogs in a larger debate about New York and the direction of “high culture” in America. But TWBSA will now be working on a huge project in Chicago that has angered some preservationists and other activists for securing access to some 20 acres on two historic public parks on Chicago’s South Side.
In Washington, TWBSA also created a sanctuary space for the First Congregational United Church of Christ on G Street NW. Located within a new contemporary office building, the worship space is an oasis of light and quiet in one of the city’s busiest districts. It manages to be both humble, simple and eloquent, and it holds its own as a street-level intervention in an otherwise rather generic structure.
Although there are no designs for the library complex as yet, the decision not to work with the other six firms also offers some guidance about the larger thinking of the organization. There was speculation that Adjaye Associates might have an edge, given the prominent work it has done in Washington (including two very fine public library branches) and its association with the new African American Museum, the opening of which will be a major highlight of Obama’s last few months in office. The Snohetta firm, also in the running, is known for the boldness of its designs, and its ability to create “iconic” contemporary forms. Diller Scofidio + Renfro has branded itself as funky, intellectual and innovative, with a cosmopolitan, urban energy. And Renzo Piano would have been the safe, institutional choice.
With TWBSA, the foundation seemed to have opted for a firm that has an “artisanal” approach to design — hands-on and thoughtful without lacking daring.
In a statement on the foundation website, the architects said: “We have chosen to work on only a few projects at a time, to allow for intense personal involvement in the design and construction of a building. This work should reflect optimism and love. The spiritual aspect of the work will emerge if the work is done well.”
The Obama Foundation will oversee fundraising for both for the construction and endowment of the presidential center and library. When finished, the library and museum part of the facility will be turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration, which runs 13 other presidential libraries.