One of the co-designers of the Obama presidential library and museum revealed Tuesday how she reacted when she heard that she and her architectural partner husband had won the job.
“All I did was scream at the top of my lungs,” New York architect Billie Tsien said. She then called her mother, who also let out a scream.
“I feel like our entire lives, we’ve been working toward this project,” Tsien said as her husband, Tod Williams, looked on.
But anyone expecting that the New York architects would reveal their design for the Obama library and museum — or even their concepts for the building — would have come away disappointed from the event at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park.
It marked the architects’ first public appearance in Chicago since Obama selected them in June.
“I know everybody wants to see the design,” said Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement for the Obama Foundation, the not-for-profit in charge of developing the complex honoring the nation’s first African-American president.
But, Strautmanis added, “the president is still exploring ideas.”
So the waiting game for one of Chicago’s most prestigious architectural projects goes on.
And it is expected to continue Wednesday when Williams and Tsien lecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Crown Hall, a renowned steel-and-glass structure designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
“The president and Mrs. Obama plan to share their vision this year,” Strautmanis said in an interview after the first part of Tuesday’s event, which lasted less than 30 minutes.
Construction will start in 2018 — “let’s make it late 2018,” Strautmanis said to laughter from a crowd that included foundation Chairman Martin Nesbitt and Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother.
He said the library and museum, officially known as the Obama Presidential Center and expected to cost at least $500 million, will open in 2021 in Jackson Park on the South Side.
Williams and Tsien are highly regarded modernists whose best-known works include the Barnes Foundation art museum in Philadelphia and the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. In 2014, Obama awarded them the National Medal of Arts.
During the event, images of their projects and those by their Chicago partner, Interactive Design Architects, flashed on a screen at the rear of the stage.
Potentially controversial issues — such as the hiring of local people for construction and how the project will (or won’t) blend into the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Jackson Park — were not aired.
And it was impossible to know if those issues came up at a reception for the architects that was held afterward. The reception was not open to members of the media.
“They keep saying there’s going to be a community process, and there is none,” said Margaret Schmid, a founder of the Jackson Park Watch group.
The meeting came six weeks after Ald. Leslie Hairston, whose 5th Ward includes the library site and portions of neighboring communities, criticized the Obama Foundation for not sharing enough information on how South Side residents will benefit from the project.
Days later, Obama paid a surprise visit to Chicago, meeting with civic leaders, including Hairston, to discuss the library and museum.
Strautmanis said Tuesday’s event, which was advertised as a “community meet-and-greet reception,” was the first of many conversations.
“They have a big job to do,” he said of the architects, adding that they are charged with creating more than just a building. “For them, it’s about creating an experience.”
Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.