On January 10th, the Obama Foundation released new renderings of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), planned for a site in Jackson Park, an Olmsted and Vaux lakefront legacy of lawns and lagoons on Chicago’s South Side. The drawings show subtle but significant revisions to the design by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners (TWBTA) in collaboration with Chicago-based Interactive Design Architects (IDEA). The scheme remains a trio of stone-clad buildings—museum, forum, and library—connected below grade and arranged around a plaza. The low-slung library and forum, largely concealed by regraded topography and lushly planted roof terraces, look mostly unchanged. The design of the plaza has become a bit more complex, with additional courtyards to provide more greenery and shaded outdoor spaces.
The museum’s canted tower has evolved more substantially, partly in response to criticism from local residents and other stakeholders that it was too big. Surprisingly, TWBTA’s solution has been to make it taller, increasing its height from 178 to 235 feet, but decreasing its footprint, thereby making its proportions leaner and less squat. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin quoted Tsien as saying, “I don’t feel embarrassed about it being tall. This isn’t a private homage. It’s a public recognition of many people’s stories.”
The other major revision to the tower, in response to complaints that it was too opaque, has been to make it more transparent, not an easy trick with a structure sheathed in stone. To achieve this goal, the architects have enlarged and added windows, including a 100-foot-tall stretch of glass on the north elevation. They’ve also recast large sections of the southeast and southwest corners as filigree screens of stone letters. It’s not yet clear whether these will be abstractions or quotes from Barack Obama, but the renderings suggest they could transform what had been a brooding monolith into something more sculptural and luminous.
In addition to these design changes, community activists have scored other victories. The Obama Foundation recently awarded a $300 million contract to the Lakeside Alliance, a collective of five local construction companies, most of them owned by African-Americans. And a much-derided above ground parking facility on the Midway, an adjacent public park, has been scrapped in favor of an underground garage within OPC’s site.
Obama’s professed hope that OPC will be “an economic engine for the South Side” has come under fire from a surprising quarter: the University of Chicago, where he once taught. An open letter signed by over 100 professors and other faculty asserts OPC “will not provide the promised development or economic benefits.” The letter faults the Jackson Park site, both for privatizing public space and for lacking adjacent open space for additional new development. “It looks to many neighbors that the only new jobs created will be as staff to the Obama Center.”
The carefully scripted rollout of the revised design includes a video in which the former President, after admitting he once wanted to be an architect, explains the symbolism of the museum tower’s canted form. Showing an image of four slightly cupped hands, two black and two white, with fingers pointing up and almost touching, he says, “We designed it with this photo in mind—many hands, each one different, coming together as one. So too will each facade of our four-sided tower be a little different from the next. It’s our way of showing that it takes many hands to shape a place.” Obama’s rhetoric, as always, is stirring, but whether it will succeed in winning over this project’s numerous critics remains to be seen.