May 6, 2017

President Obama's Library

One Big Problem With Obama's Presidential Library

Carving out space in Olmsted-designed Jackson Park for Obama’s presidential library misses an opportunity—and sets a bad precedent.

Former President Barack Obama unveils details of his Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Grammed and rested, former President Barack Obama returned to work this week after a long vacation with First Lady Michelle. His first order of business, before his deep dive into the Democratic Party’s systemic gerrymandering disadvantage, was to introduce his presidential library and center, which is bound for Chicago’s South Side.
The Obama Presidential Center, which the president unveiled at a talk on Wednesday in Chicago, comprises a campus designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Based on the preliminary sketches and an architectural model, the vision for the center is modern but unfussy, featuring a vertical lantern-shaped museum and a low-slung library and forum building with landscaped rooftop gardens.
The design is in keeping with the architects’ work: formal and restrained, with a focus on materials and contrasting vertical and horizontal elements. Inasmuch as design can stand in as a metaphor for politics, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have Obama’s famously cool temperament down. The former First Family picked TWBTA over a group of finalists that number among the top design firms in the world: SHoP ArchitectsSnøhettaRenzo PianoDavid Adjaye, and Chicago’s John Ronan Architects.

It’s hard to find any objections with the design so far. But the same can’t be said for the site placement: As I wrote back in 2015, it has a critical flaw, one that sets a bad precedent for park use everywhere. Chicagoans may not miss the sports fields on the park’s perimeter that the presidential library will replace. However, there’s a risk here of missing the trees for the forest. Chicago is slowly giving away an historic park when the city and its partners should be creating new civic spaces where there’s opportunity.   

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