Billie Tsien on designing the Obama Presidential Center, and the power of women designers

Shiny Varghese
Obama Presidential Center design, US President, Barack Obama, Tod Williams Bille Tsien Architects

Architect Billie Tsien (Photo: Taylor Jewell)

In a 2018 video, former US President Barack Obama shares his vision for the Obama Presidential Center on South Side, Chicago. As a dream “campus for active citizenship”, there would be a library, a museum, an athletic centre and open spaces for people to congregate or hold events. What Obama calls a “place for all seasons” is being designed by Tod Williams Bille Tsien Architects, who are based in New York City. The Centre, Obama says, is an ode to the power of ordinary people to come together to effect change. Tsien was one of the keynote speakers at the recent Women In Design 2020+ in Mumbai, where she shared learnings from their projects of over four decades. As an award-winning firm, they have designed numerous cultural centres and educational institutions.

“When we were doing the preliminary design, Michelle Obama commented how she always found it tedious if she had to get her two children into snow suits and pack them into a car and take them places. She was keen that the Centre would be near the museum so that other mothers with children would not struggle. That’s planning. We don’t live our lives in proportions,” says Tsien, “Or take for instance Chandigarh, and the way Le Corbusier planned the city. Was it planned according to the way people live and work in India? Maybe not. If women were to plan a city, they would be more attuned to how people live and use the space.”

Obama Presidential Center design, US President, Barack Obama, Tod Williams Bille Tsien Architects

The proposed Obama Presidential Center

Even as 71-year-old reveals that initially she felt as an outsider in the US, “I was always interested in things that had more worlds to imagine. I love the stories of people, and architecture is about feeling and emotion. I don’t want those feelings to be explicit but the idea that one slowly comes into an experience is deeper than the immediate,” says the Ithaca-born designer.

That sense of quiet beauty in there in all their projects. At the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Centre (2009), they turned a dilapidated corridor site, wedged between two avenues, into a dynamic space, with vertical plant walls, seating, fountains and art. In Mumbai’s Tata Consultancy Services (2014), with Somaya and Kalappa Consultants, they turned a 23-acre campus into a walking campus with low buildings, courtyards and handcrafted stone elements. In the American Folk Art Museum (2001), New York, they built art into the structure with white bronze panels giving them textural finishes in concrete and creating faceted forms in the facade. The building was bought by the Museum of Modern Art, who demolished it in 2014.

“It still continues to be a sore point. Tod believes there are things we did right and we did wrong, and we hope we will come out of this is better. End of the day, it’s a building we feel deeply about but it is not a person. Things are things and people are people,” says Tsien. Even in India, as we face the threat of numerous modern buildings being demolished, Tsien notes, “One would hope that for buildings in India, there would be enough attention to understand the character of the old building and express that in the new one.”

About the conference, Tsien says, “I feel women have skills and talents equal to men and it’s important to support each other. At the conference, we spoke to one another in very direct terms, without fear of it being trivialised. We need to harness that power.”