Paul Goldberger is a busy man. In addition to writing a recently released critically acclaimed biography of Frank Gehry, the critic is also involved in another high-profile endeavor: advising the Obama Foundation on the selection of an architect for the presidential library, which will be located on Chicago’s south side. In December the foundation announced the seven finalists for the commission: Adjaye Associates, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, The Renzo Piano Buildings Workshop, John Ronan Architects, SHoP Architects, Snøhetta, and Todd Williams Billie Tsien Architects.
Although it’s early in the process, the project has already raised some tough questions that the foundation will have to answer as the building moves forward: Should the library usurp precious public land in a neighborhood woefully short on parks? Where is the community’s voice in the process? Last week I had an intriguing conversation with Goldberger about the more prosaic aspects of the architect selection process. This is a slightly edited version of our talk.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
PG: Paul Goldberger
When I first read the news about your involvement, my first thought was: what a great gig! Because regardless of what you think of Obama, whether you’re a supporter like I am, or think he was born in Kenya, he’s arguably the most compelling political figure in generations. And the building that will come out of his presidency, is likely to be one of the most interesting commissions in a while. How did you get involved?
I got a call from Penny Pritzker, who I’ve known for years and is now the Secretary of Commerce. She was his first financial chairman and has been close to him for a long time. She asked me, “Do you think you might be able to give them a little bit of advice? Because the people from the foundation don’t know that much about the way things work in the architecture world.” The President is more sophisticated than the average layperson, but nevertheless is also not that connected in our world. They want to do a serious and ambitious search. I said, I’d be happy to talk to them.
Was the preliminary meeting with the President and First Lady?
No. It was with staff people. We got along well, and one conversation led to another, and they said, “Maybe you can stay with us for the whole process and advise us all the way through.” It became much more complex as it went on, which is why they began to think that they needed an advisor. There was a large RFQ, which now goes back to last summer.
Does that pre-date your involvement?
The beginning of it does, and it was their uncertainty about it, about where to turn at key moments, and exactly what they should be doing that led to questions. Those questions, I think, reached Penny, who is close to all of these people. But because of her position as Secretary of Commerce is not officially part of anything. She suggested they talk with me.
And this is something you’ve done before.
I have. But every situation is different. This is not only the most visible but also the most complex. Presidential libraries are inordinately complex.
According to news reports, the foundation hasn’t settled on a site.
There are two possibilities, both in Chicago, both on the South Side. Just about everybody close to the project is more interested in the Washington Park site than the Jackson Park site. Jackson Park is east of the University of Chicago. It’s on the lake. It’s near the Museum of Science and Industry, and it’s a traditional, formal, civic waterfront site. Washington Park is much more in the nitty-gritty of the city. There’s an elevated transit station, adjacent to it. It’s got all kinds of interesting stuff going on, all kinds of urban potential. There’s no question that all the things that you said about Obama being the most compelling political figure in generations, well, the Washington Park site embodies that view. But ultimately there will be a lot of factors that will go into the decision and at the end of the day, it will be up to the president. The process of site selection was moving forward on a parallel track, very slowly, and a decision was made recently—something I was part of and very much supported—to slow that whole process down, let the architect selection process get completed, and let whichever architect is chosen be part of the process of finalizing the site choice. So the whole site issue, for now, is kind of on the back burner. They’re also conducting studies concerning environmental conditions and other factors that could contribute in some way to the final decision. The Washington Park site is the more exciting possibility, because it is the less conventionally “presidential” site. Most of the people close to him feel the same way. But not all, so we’ll see.
I’m curious about the nuts and bolts of the process. Unpack it for us. How many RFQ responses did you receive, and how did you narrow it down to the final seven?
We received 144 responses. Some of them were from architects who were on a preliminary list, which I helped put together. They were invited. But the RFQ was open to anyone. The invitees were to prime the pump, to assure that firms who the president might be seriously interested in did not fail to respond. There were several phases. Every RFQ was read carefully, without prejudice as to whether they were invited or not.
Then you cut the 144 down to a shorter list of 20 or 30, before narrowing it down to the 7?
Yes, but I can’t remember the exact number. It was around 30. We reviewed that list and talked it through, and then began to pull it back further.
Did the President and First Lady look at that first 30, or were you responsible for paring down the list?
We did that while in communication with them. They were sent a list of around 25 or 30, as a kind of progress report. They responded with some notes and thoughts about the ones that they were particularly interested in.
Did you prepare a pdf for each firm, so they could scroll through the work?
Yes, we did, exactly. There was a really wonderful file prepared for the president that introduced them to all of the firms on the medium length list, which may have been as many as thirty, but it was far more than anyone would want to interview.
Did you include your own comments on each firm on the list?
And how did that list get pared down to the final seven?
Further talking. Interviews and studio visits, not involving the president. Still further meetings and discussions.
Who’s the lead person? Is it their close friend, Valerie Jarrett?
No, she has not been involved at all. Marty Nesbitt is the chairperson of the foundation and a close friend from Chicago. A woman named Robbin Cohen is the executive director of the foundation. She’s responsible for running the operation day to day.
How would you characterize the President and First Lady’s architectural taste, as best as you can tell up to this point?
Modern and refined. They like modern things quite genuinely. They do not want a traditional building. I don’t want to cite any particular architect, for obvious reasons, but there’s a certain kind of, let’s say tailored modernism, that they respond best to. But they’re interested in a range of things, and they’re also very interested, as they should be, in somebody who they will feel comfortable talking to.
As should always be the case.
Of course. This business is as much about matching making as it is about architectural knowledge. They very wisely have wanted to meet with everybody on the shortlist, twice. Once at the beginning of the process, and then when they come back with the RFP.
Apparently, the president looked at the list and said, “This seems great; I’m very excited about all these people, but let’s add this and this back in.”
So they’re going to have preliminary meetings with each of the final seven, but the architects won’t show schemes at that point?
Yes. They have already met with some of them. At some point soon they will have met with all seven. Early on there was a lot of anxiety about the President’s schedule. So we were pretty certain that we were bringing the list down to five. We had narrowed the list to twelve firms. We’d done a number of office visits, more intense discussions, investigations, and study, and we were going to recommend to the president that we move forward with five. We were concerned about whether he would even want to meet with more than five firms. There are a couple of people close to him who told us, “It’s inconceivable that he could have time and want to sit through meetings with more than five firms. You must get this down to five.” So, we did. This is around mid December. Robbin sent him the list of twelve, and said, “Here at the top, in the separate group, are the five that we’re recommending.” Apparently, the president looked at it and said, “This seems great; I’m very excited about all these people, but let’s add this and this back in.” So he took two from the other list and made it seven. It was fine with him; he was happy to have seven meetings.
These meetings are probably fun for him.
Yes, considering the kinds of things he usually has to spend his time with. He finds it recreational conversation. That’s how the list became seven. And, no, I will not tell you who the two are that the president added to the list.
When will the architects present schemes to the President and First Lady?
This, too, like many aspects of this process, is fluid. The search has evolved into a little bit more of a design competition than it was originally intended to be. And, frankly, more than I recommended it be.
But it was inevitable that it would be that, because it’s such high profile commission.
Yes, but there’s always the risk that it becomes a beauty contest in situations like that, particularly because the client is not going to be available for give and take during the design process. We’ve tried to be very clear about saying, “This is about conceptual ideas. You’re not designing a finished building.” The program is not even complete, anyway, and you can’t design a building without a complete program.
So, they’re selecting an architect more than a scheme?
They are picking an architect over a scheme, but they nevertheless have asked to see some conceptual ideas for schemes. We’re trying to navigate between those two things. The architects are presenting in mid-March, to us. Separate meetings with the president and first lady, when they will also present, are not yet scheduled. Those will happen, presumably, shortly thereafter, but I don’t know for sure.
Blair Kamin reported the involvement of Ed Schlossberg and Don Gummer [artist and husband of Meryl Streep]. What is happening there?
There is an informal committee that was put together with the president’s suggestion, early on, with a number of people who are interested in and sophisticated about matters of design. He wanted their input. And they were invited to talk about the project.
That’s a very community organizer move by a former community organizer.
Exactly. They were invited to join the office interviews and visits that happened between Thanksgiving and Christmas, before the list was cut back. Some people went to some visits, some went to none, some went to all. And I think that the main reason that I am involved is because, when the whole process began way back in late spring, they thought that this committee could serve as a professional advisor to both to the president and first lady, and to the foundation. Then they realized that approach was not focussed enough. It’s difficult for committees to operate like that. They were all people who the president respects and wanted to hear from. But it was far better to have them be observers, who were welcome, like a Greek chorus, to speak up whenever they wished. But not people who were charged with working on it day to day, or thinking about how the RFQ should be phrased.
How knowledgeable is the president about architects? Does he know their work, or is he familiar to the extent that he’s being exposed by your process?
He started out being somewhat familiar, already. He’s as knowledgeable as you would expect or hope a sophisticated layperson would be. Once it began to get down to the nitty gritty, there were some firms he had never heard of before.
But he knows a fair bit about architecture?
He does. Is he conversant the way you’re conversant? Of course not. He met a couple of them over the years, but didn’t know most of them. Yes, he was engaged and remains a very seriously interested layperson.
The perfect client, in other words.
Will you stay involved once they select an architect?
I’d be delighted to. Over the years I’ve occasionally helped people find architects and stayed involved. It’s fun to, especially if I like the people in the project. But they’ll have to see if I can add any value to it. I’m the matchmaker, and when the match is made, if they feel I can help as a go-between, I’d be happy to. That will be for them to decide.