Obama Picks New York Architects to Design Presidential Library

Photo
President Obama awarded the 2013 National Medal of Arts to Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, married architects, during a ceremony at the White House in 2014. The two have been chosen to design Mr. Obama's presidential library. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Obama and the team planning his life after the White House have selected Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, a New York-based husband-and-wife architectural duo, to design his presidential library in Chicago, tapping two modernists who are known for their refined work creating cultural and academic institutions.

Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, who spent months poring over proposals for the project and meeting with prospective architects at the White House, chose the team because their vision for the center came closest to theirs, said Martin Nesbitt, a close friend of Mr. Obama's who is the chairman the Barack Obama Foundation.

The Obamas also admired the work of Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien — both of whom the president awarded the 2013 National Medal of Arts — on buildings such as the Barnes Foundation art museum in Philadelphia and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, he added.

The couple also designed the Folk Art Museum, which the Museum of Modern Art tore down in 2014, outraging many New Yorkers.

"Their proposal and approach resonated deeply with the president and Mrs. Obama, with their recognition that the building alone is not the point here, but it is what happens and will happen in the center," Mr. Nesbitt said during a conference call to announce the selection.

He said the two would collaborate with Interactive Design Architects, a Chicago-based firm run by Dina Griffin, one of the relatively few African-American women in the field and a resident of Chicago's South Side. They will ultimately oversee a design and engineering team that will comprise as many as 20 firms, the foundation said.

Mr. Obama's plans for his presidential center are ambitious and expensive. His foundation last year released a global "request for qualifications" for architects who could design what it described as a high-technology take on the traditional archival presidential library, including space for innovation laboratories, a community garden and sports. The president has begun raising money for the enterprise, for which he plans to collect as much as $1 billi on.

Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien's firm was selected from among 144 architects who responded to last year's call. The list was narrowed in December to a group of seven renowned contenders that included Renzo Piano Building Workshop; Diller Scofidio + Renfro, designers of the High Line in Manhattan; and Adjaye Associates, currently at work on the African-American History Museum in Washington.

Ms. Griffin was not one of the 144, Mr. Nesbitt said, but was "broadly recognized and respected" among the respondents as someone with whom they would like to work on the project. Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic who is advising the Obamas, called Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien "among the most respected practitioners not just in New York but in the United States," adding that their buildings have "a com bination of dignity, beauty and understatement" that will be needed to execute the president's ambitious plans.

"The president and first lady were involved throughout and set the tone from the beginning for an architect who could design a building of serious architectural ambition that would be a meaningful and important building for the 21st century," Mr. Goldberger said.

Obama Foundation officials said they had yet to choose the site on the South Side of Chicago for the center.

The Obamas have been torn for months between parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux: Jackson Park, the site of the 1893 World's Fair that includes the Museum of Science and Industry, and Washington Park, which incl udes the DuSable Museum of African American History. Mr. Nesbitt said the foundation hoped to have a decision on the site by the end of the year, but it might be as long as two years until a building design emerges.

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