A Contest to Re-Imagine the White House An architectural competition calls for proposals to redesign the most famous home in the country, with some amusing results. Most entries were conceptual and political rather than practical.
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A Contest to Re-Imagine the White House

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A Contest to Re-Imagine the White House

A Contest to Re-Imagine the White House

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Democratic Senator Pat Leahy has said, "There is a cloud over this White House and a gathering storm." Republican columnist Peggy Noonan has said, "The great shortcoming of this White House, the great thing it is missing, is simple wisdom." In both cases they were actually talking about the occupants of the White House, but a New York gallery and consulting firm thinks they're onto something.

The White House itself is lacking, even though it has 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, a bowling alley, five full-time chefs, and counting all the floors underground, actually six stories. Nevertheless, there is this competition going on to design a new White House. One of the judges for the competition is Geoff Manaugh. He joins us now. Hello, Geoff.

Mr. GEOFF MANAUGH (Senior Editor, Dwell Magazine; Jury Member, White House Redux Competition): Hi.

PESCA: What were the rules for - if you wanted to enter the competition, what rules did you have to follow?

Mr. MANAUGH: It was pretty much a free-for-all. So it was an international design competition. You just had to register. You were limited in what you could do as far as the images. You only had 12 sort of display boards that you could do. A display board is really just a piece of paper. So you had 12 sheets of paper that you could use to talk about your idea in both text and images.

PESCA: How many people did enter?

Mr. MANAUGH: As far as actual projects that got submitted, there were 430.


Mr. MANAUGH: There were black houses, so it was the White House painted black. There were the total removal of the White House, so there just would be absolutely nothing in the center of D.C. There were White Houses attached to battleships, so that they could go off to war. And so, there were a lot of really kind of fun ideas like that.

The one thing that I guess I wasn't so much shocked, but surprised, but how few actual architectural proposals there were, that out of 430, I would say, genuinely, not all that many of them really said, hey, you know, we're going to design a building, and this is what the building's going to look like, and it's going to have, you know, six elevators, and you know, 25 new bathrooms and there was almost no one who took it on that level. It was almost used as a - well, not all, but it was majoritatively (ph) used as a kind of political commentary or a really just sort of like a joke. Which it was fun. I mean, I liked it.

PESCA: So did you have a winner and a panel of runners up? How did that work?

Mr. MANAUGH: Well, yeah, what we did is we narrowed it down to a list of finalists and we narrowed even that down to a list - to a handful of winners. And then we're still going to be doing sort of an "American Idol" sort of version of this. So we're going to put all of the entries online and let the public decide so everyone can go through all 430 and vote for their favorite. And then we're going to sort of correlate those, or tabulate them all, and then announce all the winners including the publicly chosen one and our winner, and do all that in September.

PESCA: Well, talk about maybe one or two strong entries or strong points.

Mr. MANAUGH: One was a project that deliberately tried to increase the vulnerability of the president on every level.

PESCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. MANAUGH: So the idea was that, you know, the windows are single pane and they're not bulletproof. The house itself was up on this kind of ridiculous stilt structure that could break at a moment's notice. It was just hovering over the city, so you could, you know, shoot at it, throw things at it. It was just sort of right out in the open. But the general idea there was that if you make the president more and more vulnerable and actually decrease security, that you'll inspire a sense of responsibility in your everyday decision-making. And that you - you know, you'll be less inclined, say, to invade a foreign country, or you'll be less inclined to anger a neighbor.

PESCA: But did any of the entrants really say, look, it still has to have - convey a certain amount of gravitas. The White House is still the at least symbolic center of government. Did anyone really buy into the idea that the White House is sort of an American palace?

Mr. MANAUGH: For the most part, I'd say that they weren't, you know, baroque palaces so much as extremely hypermodern glass office buildings. But I mean, there were some that took it on to really interesting levels which is - I mean, one idea that I just think is important to highlight is that, you know, the fact that the White House is a residence, and the fact that the executive branch is distributed throughout the greater D.C. area in sort of subsidiary offices that are located on different streets and in different neighborhoods, it gives this kind of fragmentary, or fractured, sense to what the executive branch really is. So it's kind of hard to imagine what the executive branch is in the same way that you can picture, say, the judiciary because that has the Supreme Court. Or you can picture, you know, the Congress because it has the U.S. Capitol building.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. MANAUGH: So you simultaneously maybe get a sense that the executive branch is much bigger than it really is because you can never see it all in one place. But - or maybe that you think it's much smaller than it is because you only think it's the White House. But also by having the White House be a residence for the president, you - it sort of artificially amplifies the idea that the executive branch is just one man or one woman, as it were.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. MANAUGH: And so by turning the new White House into not just a residence but actually just a gigantic office complex, that you would more accurately represent for the American people what the executive branch is, and that it's not just a house of some random guy in a cowboy hat who's going to take over the world, that it's actually, you know, thousands of different offices and branches and different workers. And there's an entire branch of government, and it's not just one guy, and it's not just one person that you have to pledge allegiance to, as it were.

PESCA: How many of the entrants kept the idea of the most iconic room in the White House, and therefore, the most iconic room in America, the Oval Office? Did you see reverberations of some sort of Oval Office in a lot of the entries?

Mr. MANAUGH: I did. I mean, yeah, they were White Houses. I mean, there was the White-House-in-the-sky kind of idea, which was the International Space Station idea, where you have the president sort of lording over the continents below. There were anti-Oval Offices that would sort of take the Oval Office and put it somehow, like, in the Earth. There was one that was actually pretty cool which took the Oval Office but basically removed the roof and allowed people to - it kind of made a subterranean Oval Office, so that people could actually look down at the president, and the president would be reminded that he was being looked at by other people.

PESCA: Like a zoo.

Mr. MANAUGH: So he was watched and not the watcher.

PESCA: Like a presidential zoo.

Mr. MANAUGH: Yeah, you could say that, a presidential sort of a prison.

PESCA: Oh, my word. Look, they're not going to redesign the White House, but is there any practical application for what was done here? Maybe some state capital or executive office building will have to be designed, and perhaps some of the ideas here could make its way into the real world. Do you think that's a possibility?

Mr. MANAUGH: Yeah, it's a possibility. I think that maybe focusing on the practicality of the design contest misses just the fact that, on a more philosophical level, I just think it's interesting that, you know, to say to the everyday American citizen that you can actually re-imagine what the center of government looks like, and that therefore what that center of government - what sort of impact that center of government has on you and how it thinks of itself and how it presents itself through architecture. I think that that's just sort of in and of itself an interesting result for this. And - but yeah, you know, there might be a detail here or there that might pop up in, you know, the Idaho state capitol building or some new office, federal building, in New York City. You never know.

PESCA: Yeah. All right, Geoff Manaugh is on the jury for the White House design competition, a senior editor at Dwell Magazine and author of BLDGblog. Thanks a lot, Geoff.

Mr. MANAUGH: Sure, thank you.

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