Obama’s Presidential Center: A Place for Everybody?

A building that reflects the personality of an individual; a building that houses the work of said individual – American presidential libraries serve this purpose. Their design varies, just as much as the personalities they represent. The former Presidents of the United States each have a dedicated library where documents and materials are kept that relate to their respective careers. The 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, spearheads the development of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, his and his wife’s hometown. The Obama Foundation chose Jackson Park in Chicago’s South Side as the site for the planned building. While dedicated to the Obama Presidency, the center is intended to offer room for everybody.

Renowned architect couple Tod Williams and Billie Tsien received the commission to design the center. Michael Van Valkenburgh is responsible for the landscape design, in cooperation with Site Design Group and Living Habitats.

Breaking with tradition

In May 2017 the Obamas presented an early conceptual vision of the center to the public. It comprises a building complex featuring a museum, a forum and a library that are arranged within a campus surrounding a central public plaza. The museum resembles a towering obelisk. It is the tallest of the three individual buildings and features spaces for exhibition and education as well as offices. The forum and the library will be situated in one-storey public buildings including an auditorium, a restaurant and green roof terraces. An additional fourth building towards the south of the main cluster of buildings is supposed to house a sports center.

The planned complex doesn’t resemble a traditional Presidential Library. Or a storehouse with an aesthetically pleasing exterior, yet bland interior. It won’t even serve to store Presidential papers. Instead, digital versions of documents will be available in online formats. The actual, physical documents will be deposited in a facility of the National Archives and Records Administration. The Obamas have their own idea of what the library is supposed to be: a living meeting point for the community, embedded in local and global networks. A place where kids from the South Side can advance their own personalities.

The Obama Foundation has a highly idealistic goal: the center is supposed to be a safe and inviting place that inspires people to learn and to foster change in their own communities. According to Obama Foundation Board Chair Martin Nesbitt, “the center will be a place of action, not only for reading or listening.”

Design choices raise concerns

However, the plans haven’t only received praise. The choice of the site in particular raises concerns. Preservation activists expressed their opposition after the plans were made public. In their view, the planned center endangers Jackson Park, designed in 1871 by Frederick Law Olmstead, the legendary landscape architect who created New York’s Central Park. The complex will occupy roughly 20 hectares of Jackson Park. The nonprofit organization “Friends of the Parks” demanded that an unoccupied area bordering another park in Chicago should become the site for the center, rather than Jackson Park. Their demand was not met. However, the Obama Foundation revised their initial plan. Instead of an above-ground parking garage that would have consumed even more of the local green space, the decision was made to create a below-grade parking garage. The redesign also includes 400 new trees for Jackson Park and more on-site playgrounds. According to Obama, “the majority of the campus area will be open and publicly accessible. It will be a place for all seasons, with intertwined landscapes, a hill for riding sleds and quiet places for reading or reflection.”

The new plans were submitted to Chicago’s Plan Commission for permit. The City Council will also need to approve the plans before the Obama Foundation starts groundwork on site. The aim is to ensure that the Presidential Center doesn’t fundamentally alter the character of Jackson Park. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, the project will cost an estimated 350 million Dollars US. Private donations are supposed to cover the design and construction costs. The Obamas hope to open the center in 2012.

From doubt to confidence

The debate over the parking garage has quieted down. However, preservation activists are still worried about the center’s impact on this historically important landscape. According to Martin Nesbitt, the green spaces that will be covered by buildings will be replaced. Cornell Drive, a six-lane road passing the park’s western lagoon and golf court from the Midway Plaisance to South Shore, will be converted into a green space. “The place that we intend to develop will be an integral part of Jackson Park. The team’s intention is to integrate the project into the park. In return, the center serves to unleash the park’s full potential”, Nesbitt says. Charles A. Birnbaum, President and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, responds: “Cornell Drive is an element of the Olmstead design and as such a listed park landscape.”

Intentions and hopes, but also doubts remain that the center’s integrative concept will actually draw together all those impacted by it – even those who worry about the existing landscape.