The Obama library in Chicago now has an architect: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, a husband-and-wife duo whose resume includes the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the LeFrak Lakeside Center in Brooklyn, and several university buildings across the US. Williams and Tsien’s eponymous New York firm beat out six others for the job, which consists of a library to house the Presidential archives and a museum “focusing on the Obama Presidency and issues of our time,” according to the Obama Foundation. Interactive Design Architects, a Chicago architecture studio, will collaborate with Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects on the project.

The husband-wife team tends to build big, airy, modernist structures with expansive courtyards. Their most famous buildings would have a Brutalist edge, if not for the ethereal glow that comes from all the limestone and glass windows.

Renderings of the proposed Obama Presidential Center don’t exist yet. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, at a press conference today architecture critic Paul Goldberger said “the process was designed to produce an architect, not a conceptual design for the building,” and “it’s really a blank slate.” Goldberger also said the exact location of the site—either in Jackson or Washington Park on Chicago’s south side—has yet to be determined. The library will reportedly cost $500 million to build, and is slated to be completed in 2020.

The firm did not immediately respond to our request for comment, but there’s a lot to infer from the First Couple’s decision. Williams and Tsien may not wield as much star wattage as the competitors they beat out—including architects like David Adjaye and Renzo Piano, and outfits like Snøhetta and SHoP Architects—but it’s easy to imagine the Obamas being drawn to the firm’s stated philosophy, which frames “architecture as an act of profound optimism.”

What’s more, although Williams and Tsien’s studio is in NY, not Chicago, the firm’s architectural presence spans the US, making it distinctly American in a way that Adjaye (a Brit) or Renzo Piano (an Italian), are not. Plus, in an industry dominated by white men, Billie Tsien is an Asian woman. The president of Interactive Design Architects is a black woman. Optimism, local talent, diversity—plans for the library may not yet exist, you can already see the outline of how Obama will shape his legacy.


A Tiny Firm Beats Out Giants to Design Obama’s Library