i+D - January/February 2020 - 28

Political Designs - By Brian Libby

Tod Williams Billie Tsien
Architects: Values and Landscape
Since founding their namesake firm in 1986, the husband-and-wife architects
and partners Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have established themselves
by designing exclusively for institutions: museums, schools, and nonprofit
organizations. Winners of the National Medal of the Arts in 2013 and a
host of other awards for projects like the Barnes Foundation art museum
in Philadelphia, the firm has now taken on two of its highest-profile
commissions yet, each with a unique set of architectural challenges and
political sensitivities: the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago
and the new U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
For all commissions, Williams and Tsien begin by talking about ideas. "We
never start by drawing," Williams explains. "What are the values the client
has, and what can we do to push those values forward?" The architects
talked with the former president and first lady about how the Obama
Presidential Center could be more of a community center than previous
presidential libraries, embracing its Jackson Park locale with a sense of giving
back that also expressed President Obama's roots as a community organizer.
The design breaks down the multifaceted program into a group of buildings
that mostly nestle into the landscape, integrating with the park. But there is
also a tower that acts "as a beacon of hope and light," Williams says.
The Obama Presidential Center gained city approval in 2018 after a judge
dismissed a lawsuit from a nonprofit environmental group seeking to
preserve Jackson Park as is, but groundbreaking still has been subject to
delays, largely due to an ongoing federal review triggered by its location,
which was the site of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and
designed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted with
Calvert Vaux. The design has also evolved over time. But the architects say
that for a prominent urban project, these constraints are part of the process,
and they defer to President Obama's measured tone. "He's in a way a very
wise client, both respectful of others and other voices but knows that he
wants this thing to be an upbeat, exciting representation of his presidency,"
Williams explains.

A sense of welcome and the shared
values of Mexico and the U.S.
were crucial to the design of the
U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
(Image: Tod Williams Billie Tsien
Architects | Partners)

High-profile government
and political commissions may
involve many stakeholders,
take years to construct, and be
subject to a host of limitations.
Outdoor spaces at the
Obama Presidential
Center serve to connect
the separate structures
and to connect visitors
to nature as well.
(Image: The Obama Foundation)

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i+D - January/February 2020



i+D - January/February 2020

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https://www.nxtbook.com/emerald/id/20211112
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https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20200506_french
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https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20190708_french
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20190506
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20190506_french
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20190304
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20190304_french
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https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20190102_french
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https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20180910
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20180910_french
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20180708
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20180708_french
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20180506
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20180506_french
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20180304
https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/id/20180304_french
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