Obama picks Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects for Chicago presidential library

To design his presidential library, Barack Obama has chosen a pair of New York architects whose cool, precise style in some ways mirrors his own.

The Barack Obama Foundation announced today that Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, a firm best known for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the recently demolished American Folk Art Museum in New York, had prevailed in a design competition for the library, which is expected to open in 2021.

TWBTA will work with the Chicago firm Interactive Design Architects, headed by Dina Griffin, on the project.

The foundation has yet to select a site for the library. Two locations on the South Side of Chicago are under consideration. A decision on the site is likely before the end of the year, at which point the design process will get fully underway.

The work of TWBTA is notable for its precision, its craftsmanship and the heft and quality of its material palette. In formal terms its buildings are reserved, with straightforward geometry rather than sweeping curves or virtuosic gestures.

In a media conference call, the foundation’s executive director, Robbin Cohen, said more than 140 firms around the world answered a request for qualifications issued last year. In December the foundation announced a shortlist of seven firms including Italian Renzo Piano, Chicago architect John Ronan and London architect David Adjaye.

The architecture critic Paul Goldberger, an advisor to the foundation, called Williams and Tsien “truly among the greatest architects of our time and also among the most thoughtful. If anything characterizes their work it’s a combination of dignity, beauty and understatement.”

The firm has been in the middle of two recent controversies, though neither revolved around its design work per se. The Folk Art Museum drew critical acclaim when it opened in 2001 but was demolished in 2014 by the Museum of Modern Art to smooth the way for an expansion of the larger museum.

TWBTA’s new complex for the Barnes Foundation in the center of Philadelphia replaced the original Barnes building in suburban Merion, Penn. That move went against the desires of the museum’s late founder, Albert C. Barnes, to keep the extensive collection in place after his death. An additional layer of controversy involved the decision to build copies of the old Merion galleries inside TWBTA’s new museum, producing an odd sort of architectural simulacrum that allowed the paintings to be hung just as they had in their original setting.

Of all TWBTA’s work, foundation officials said, the Barnes, the LeFrak ice-skating center in Brooklyn and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago impressed the president and First Lady Michelle Obama the most. The firm is also at work on a new American embassy in Mexico City. Its C.V. Starr East Asian Library opened on the UC Berkeley campus in 2008.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the process was intended to select an architect, not a design for a building,” Goldberger said. “While all seven [finalists] showed some conceptual ideas for a building, the real design process begins anew right now. It’s really a blank slate.”

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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