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The Architecture Project Behind Obama's Chicago Presidential Library


President Obama will leave office next year, and his presidential library and museum on the South Side of Chicago will become a headquarters for his legacy. This week, the Obama Foundation announced it had selected the husband and wife team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to be the lead designers. We're joined now by Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic, who joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Blair, thanks for being with us.

BLAIR KAMIN: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Do you have any insight into what the Obamas were looking for?

KAMIN: I think that the Obamas came at this from different perspectives. According to one of the architects who contended for this project, Barack Obama asked questions about the art of architecture. Michelle Obama, on the other hand, was said to be more concerned with the feel of a given space and how it would work. And she supposedly got less into the weeds of aesthetics than the president did. That was the closest I got to being a fly on the wall in the Oval Office when, you know, these architects were actually meeting with the first couple.

SIMON: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien did the wonderful new Barnes Foundation Art Museum in Philadelphia. What else?

KAMIN: They've also done the now-demolished American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, as well as the Logan Center for the Arts here in Chicago and a wonderful natatorium - a fabulous swimming pool - at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

SIMON: Yeah. President Obama awarded Tod Williams and Billie Tsien the National Medal of Arts in 2013. What do you think might have drawn the Obamas to their style?

KAMIN: I think that the Obamas love modernism. They are very different from George Bush, who selected Robert A. M. Stern, a traditionalist architect, for his presidential library. In selecting Tod and Billie, the Obamas have cast a vote in favor of architecture that you experience rather than experiencing as eye candy. They've cast a vote in favor of crafted buildings rather than those that are computer-driven blobs. They've cast a vote in favor of buildings that create a sense of place rather than just becoming preening objects in the landscape.

SIMON: This is a building, after all, that will serve not just a very important function, in a sense, for the American people, but is really being built with it in mind that it's going to be a cornerstone for cultural life on the South Side of Chicago.

KAMIN: Cultural life and economic revival. What's significant about this presidential library is that it is the first to be built in a poor and predominantly African-American neighborhood. The really interesting decision now is for them to pick between the two sites, Jackson Park and Washington Park. And you wonder which side of Barack Obama will win out here.

You know, the community organizer Barack Obama surely would pick Washington Park because it's a chance to really uplift and transform a poor neighborhood. On the other hand, the sort of more ambitious Barack Obama who makes great speeches, you know, lofty aspirations, might be inclined to pick Jackson Park. That site is within walking distance of the Museum of Science and Industry on Lake Shore Drive. It's less of a risk. And that really has a big impact on the architecture because architecture begins with a site.

SIMON: A question I pose as a proud Chicagoan - unlike maybe the sites of some other presidential libraries, they have a pretty high bar to meet in that city with that skyline.

KAMIN: They have a very high bar to meet here. Chicago is known around the world for its innovations in architecture, from the development of the first skyscrapers in the 1880s to the Prairie School houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, all the way to contemporary innovations like Millennium Park.

I will say with cautious optimism that they have the capacity to meet that bar and to build a building that is a new kind of presidential library, one that isn't simply a monument to the president, but rather engages the community, engages nature and uses technology not only to create interactive exhibits, but to project the presence of that building to a much wider world.

SIMON: Blair Kamin, who is architecture critic at The Chicago Tribune. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAMIN: Scott, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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