Obama Library Architects on the Importance of 'Context and Place'


Asia Society Hong Kong center. (Michael Moran)

On Thursday, it was announced that the Obama presidential library in Chicago will be designed by husband and wife architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. According to the Chicago Tribune, the pair was tapped because "they understood the desire of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for the center to connect with neighborhoods around it and to house exhibitions with a strong interactive component."

The award-winning duo previously designed Asia Society's Hong Kong center, which was refurbished from a colonial-era explosives magazine compound. There, they also incorporated their designs into the context of the city by making it a sort of "horizontal garden" in what was otherwise mostly a "vertical city" of skyscrapers. “[Many designs] don’t always care about context and place,” Williams said at an Asia Society event in January. “They too easily fall prey to the desire to imitate first world designs.”

Earlier this year, the building received American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honor Awards for excellence in architecture, interior architecture, and urban design. “Combining historical buildings from the British colonial period with an angular footbridge and a glass-wrapped modern pavilion, the Asia Society complex in Hong Kong spans eras, cultures, and styles,” the AIA stated. “Capitalizing on the setting, rather than building over it, is such a smart and radical move in Hong Kong," one juror added.

The Obama library will be built in either Jackson Park or Washington Park — both historic urban sites in Chicago's South Side in need of economic revitalization. In either case, Williams and Tsien are likely to face similar challenges to what they experienced in Hong Kong balancing historical preservation, modern community needs, and creating a dynamic attractive structure. The library isn't expected to begin construction until well after Obama leaves office in January 2017, with a target completion date of 2021.

Watch Williams and Tsien discuss the Asia Society Hong Kong Center in the video below:


Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien discuss how Asia Society Hong Kong was built and how a landmark was transformed. The conversation was moderated by S. Alice Mong. (1 hr., 29 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.