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If These Walls Could Talk: Michelle Obama on life in & out of the White House

Why equity in architecture was one of 2017’s hottest topics at AIA

This is part five in a continuing series on equity in design. Click to read part four.

Michelle Obama delivered the keynote to a packed house of architects, designers and contractors at the American Institute of Architects conference in Orlando, Fl. in her debut public appearance since leaving the White House. She addressed key issues on equity in design, the need to mentor more minorities and women in the architecture and design worlds to advance their careers and how urban planning can leave some outside the “inner circle” of cities deprived of opportunities. She even touched upon how politics make “the knives come out,” but the talk was also peppered with candid stories and fun facts from the Obama’s lives in and outside of the White House. Here are some favorite moments, which began with Mrs. Obama’s very first words, “Hi everybody. It’s good to get out of the house.”

‘‘A thing’ with architects?’

Michelle Obama laughed when her interviewer, AIA President Thomas Vonier, FAIA, brought up the fact that Barack has said he once considered becoming an architect instead of going into politics. In 2008, former President Obama revealed he had wanted to pursue the “democratic” field of architecture to create inspiring communal structures that can become “works of art that we can move through and live in,” according to Brand Nu Design. Mrs. Obama acknowledged this was true, then teased the audience, asking, “Is it a ‘thing’ with architects?” that Barack once considered the profession.

“Public service will always be in our blood,” Mrs. Obama said, but later added that “deep down Barack is an artist.”

“He says, ‘I don’t care about what the living room looks like,’” she paused, “and then he says, ‘well, what about the pillows?’” she smiled. According to the former first lady, her detail-oriented husband is “always commenting about something,” down to the throw pillows. That’s welcome news in the design community since the Obama Foundation just released renderings of the design concept for the forthcoming Presidential Center in Chicago.

Leaving home, heading to the White House & going back again

Mrs. Obama gave the audience a taste of what the change was like from leaving home in Chicago to move to D.C. She detailed what it was later like to depart from the White House, which had become home, to return to life as private citizens.

When the family returned to their home in Chicago, she thought, “it’s like a bomb went off,” since things were left behind during the chaotic transition.

“I’m going through the cabinets and there are seasonings that have been there 10 years, and you think, why didn’t we throw this stuff out?” Mrs. Obama joked.

She and her now 18-year-old daughter, Malia, were cleaning together and found “every little Polly Pocket shoe and every little grab-bag gift,” Mrs. Obama laughed. She had to explain to Malia, “we thought we’d be here more, we thought we’d have time to come back and you guys were little kids. We didn’t want to throw out your toys, we wanted to keep the house the same as it was so that you’d have a place to go back to.”

She added, “But that’s how sudden the change is. You don’t have time to adjust. One minute you’re a private citizen, the next, your husband is Commander-in-Chief.”

The lives of White House children

“Home life doesn’t change,” when you move to the White House, Mrs. Obama asserted, “the “expectation of being decent and compassionate people is still there even if your dad is the 44th president.”

Well, maybe there were a few changes, like a slew of bodyguards, for instance, Mrs. Obama said, adding that her children have always been strong.

“Our kids are the ones who are living in the real world. You try to make things normal for them.”

She said the Obama way of parenting goes something like this: Remember when, as a little kid you’d fall down, and your parent would tell you, “Oh, you’re fine,” and you’d stop crying?

We do that with everything,” the mother of two teenage girls revealed, using examples like stalkers and SWAT teams on the roof.

Joking aside, there were some seriously fun moments growing up in the White House. For instance, on the eve of the Inauguration, Sasha and Malia had a sleepover with eight girls and told their mom, “we want pizza and we want nuggets.”

“And it’s like, really?” Mrs. Obama smiled. The girls pleaded it that was their last night at the White House after having spent such a big part of their lives there. Eventually, they got their way. The next day, the former first lady revealed that the girls exited the White House through the backdoor after tearful goodbyes to the people there who they’d known for so long. It was hard on the Obama girls, she said, to bid farewell to the place they’d called home for eight years.

Windows & Doorbells: The comforts of home

Though the Obama girls aren’t entirely out of the spotlight, they are enjoying the comforts of normalcy – like windows.
Mrs. Obama explained to the crowd that Sasha used to always try to open her window at the White House, which was a big security threat for the daughter of the president.

She says, of course “I had to be the one” to tell her, “no fresh air for you,” and close the windows. Now that the family is out of the White House, Sasha keeps her windows open, a once lost luxury.
But, Mrs. Obama laughed that she has to tell her daughter that when the mosquitos come in because she keeps the windows open in her new life, “That’s on you girl!”

Life has even changed for Bo and Sunny, the Obama family dogs. Did you know that the White House doesn’t have a doorbell? Now that the dogs are living normal lives, they’ve had their first encounters with doorbells. And, Mrs. Obama says their dogs are incredibly perplexed by the novelty and have no idea what to do when a doorbell sounds.

The concludes a five-part series of Hunter Douglas Architectural’s coverage of Michelle Obama’s message at AIA and those of other speakers and thought leaders who are also working to crack the code behind equity in design. Follow @FluentinDesign to continue the conversation.

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