Meet the women behind the Obama Presidential Center
Dina Griffin is the president of Interactive Design Architects (IDEA). IDEA was selected to join the team as Associate Architect to Tod Williams | Billie Tsien Architects to design the Obama Presidential Center. As Associate Architect, she and her team provide professional architectural services in support of the vision of TWBTA in all phases of the project including construction administration, city, state, and federal compliance, and community engagement.
We recently connected with Dina to discuss her architectural story, how it feels to return to the neighborhood for this project, and how the Obama Presidential Center connects to the legacy of the 44th President.
Q: To start, tell us how your architectural story began. What led you to the Obama Presidential Center?
A: My path to architecture is not normal. I’m hopeful when people hear that, they too are inspired to try to pursue it. I was in high school at Kenwood Academy, just down the street from the Obama Presidential Center, when I was introduced to the industry. We had mandatory classes and I had to choose between home economics and industrial education. I foolishly thought that home economics had something to do with cooking and I wanted no part in it. So, I chose industrial education and I thought, “I don’t care. I’m going to break a nail. I can get dirty, do carpentry, auto shop, and welding.” Well, that year, instead of teaching those courses, they taught architectural drafting.
I happened into this profession. The first reference, outside of high school, to architectural drafting I’d heard was from Mike Brady of “The Brady Bunch.” That’s what pushed me towards architecture. However, I applied to schools too late and ended up having to attend another school before transferring to the University of Illinois School of Architecture.
Before I transferred, a professor was lecturing about the process of applying to the University of Illinois. I went to him after class to ask a clarifying question. He said to me, “Oh, I wasn’t talking to you. You should just find another major. It’s too difficult.” And of course, that lit a fire under me. I was admitted to the School of Architecture at Illinois, graduated, and today, I am the president of IDEA and have been in the industry for over 20 years and proudly serve on the University of Illinois School of Architecture Alumni Board.
For the Obama Presidential Center, I believe the president, Mrs. Obama, and TWBTA wanted a capable and diverse team on the project. Our work as Architect of Record on the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago helped to shine a spotlight on us, resulting in being asked to join the team.
Q: Describe the vision for the Obama Presidential Center. What story do you hope to convey to visitors?
A: The Obamas chose Chicago. They chose Jackson Park. Initially, I thought, “This is going to be so fantastic for the city as a whole.” I still think that’s true, but the attention that’s being paid to the neighborhood surrounding the Center is important for its success. It’s for the South and West side. I’m proud that the Center will be near my neighborhood, Hyde Park. The legacy for the President and the First Lady is to empower young people; from across the street or across the globe, through the mission of the Center, they are making sure everybody has the same level of importance, access, and voice.
Aside from the interactive programming at the Center, I’m most excited for visitors to see the Sky Room. It provides a contemplative space with incredible views of the surrounding neighborhoods, the downtown skyline and expansive views of our beautiful lake. Visitors can also peer to the South and West sides of the space and look through the words that have defined a presidency. Fortunately, access to the Sky Room is free. Anyone is allowed an opportunity to see the city and the campus of the Presidential Center from a perspective that you wouldn’t otherwise get. Once visitors realize they are looking out through the words of President Obama, they will see how powerful it is to experience that space.
Q: Stepping back—what does a typical day look like?
A: My day-to-day consists of multiple tasks. I manage the office and work on other projects, as the Obama Presidential Center project is ongoing. As local architect, we are the eyes on the ground to observe construction. We highlight anything that deviates from the construction documents and update TWBTA on a weekly basis. Internally, one of my partners is focused on the exterior wall design; another partner is leading a team that ensures submittals are processed properly. Right now, my responsibility is focusing on the furniture, fixtures and equipment design. Since this effort will not ramp up for a while, we are currently in planning mode.
I also participate in outreach, which I love. In addition to speaking engagements at schools and universities, Lakeside Alliance, the builders of the Center, sponsors events for young women, especially women of color, to see people who look like them, providing opportunities to pursue a career in architecture and/or construction, and make it in this industry.
The project is now under construction. It makes me proud when I drive by the site of the Center and see those massive cranes in the air. The project is complex and challenging, as most projects are, but I am reinvigorated by the support of our team and the vision to tell the story of the 44th President of the United States.
Q: You are helping continue the legacy of President and Mrs. Obama, as well as creating the physical manifestation of the Foundation’s mission to inspire, empower, and connect people to change their world. What do you hope your legacy for this project and beyond will be?
A: I want to enhance the legacy of President and Mrs. Obama and be a part of building a world-class Center in my hometown that moves change in a positive direction. The project’s success will be my success.
Q: To close, what advice do you give young people who are just starting out in their careers?
A: If you just let your career happen to you, it’s just going to happen. You’re going to have no rudder. You’re not going to be able to guide yourself. And that’s one thing that I’m hopeful people walk away with is advocate for yourself.