Wednesday on the South Side of Chicago, former President Barack Obama presented a conceptual design for the Obama Presidential Center to an enthusiastic crowd of community stakeholders and press. Joining him was Dina Griffin of Interactive Design Architects, who is collaborating on the project with Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners. Along with former first lady Michelle Obama, Williams and Tsien were on hand but, surprisingly, did not participate in the presentation.
Rendered site plans, a perspective, and a model show a promising scheme sensitively integrated into historic Jackson Park, an Olmsted and Vaux lakefront legacy that was the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Three stone-clad buildings connected below grade—the Museum, Forum, and Library—form a campus around a public plaza.
The Museum, which appears to be seven stories tall, is a distinctively canted mass with a cutout glass corner. It seems destined to be the center’s identifying landmark. By contrast, the Library and Forum are only one story each. With lushly planted roof terraces, they read mostly as landscape.
The Museum will contain exhibition galleries, public spaces, offices, and education and meeting rooms. The Forum will have more offices, an auditorium, a restaurant, and a public garden. The Obama Foundation is seeking community input for the programming of the Library. The total size of the Center will range between 200,000 and 225,000 square feet, but the site design imagined by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Site Design Group, and Living Habitats will provide a net increase in green space.
“This will be not be just a presidential library, which we tend to think of as a monument to the past and a bit of an ego trip,” said Obama. “Michelle and I want this to be about the future.” He claims to have agreed reluctantly to a museum “because, let’s face it, we all want to see Michelle’s dresses.”
Obama clarified that the design is a work in progress, emphasizing, “I want this to be a conversation.” He seemed to be responding to criticism from local residents that the Foundation has not taken their concerns seriously. These include displacement of people who currently use the park for sports and barbecues, and the lack of a “benefits agreement” to codify the community’s share of jobs generated by the project. Obama offered reassurances on both issues. He also made a sly suggestion that, even though the Center’s location emerged from a formal bid process, the selection of Jackson Park—in the South Side community the Obamas call home—may have been a foregone conclusion.