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Curbed: What does a presidential building look like?

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Curbed: What does a presidential building look like?

By Alexandra Lange, March 22, 2018

On February 27, former President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at a meeting at Chicago’s McCormick Place, the sixth public presentation on the plans for his presidential center in the city’s Jackson Park, currently under city and federal review for its impact on the historic landscape and environment.

Obama’s unannounced speech seemed intended to calm the waters, which have become unexpectedly rough for what should have been smooth sailing: the first urban presidential center, in his adopted hometown, in an area that has long suffered from disinvestment.

“I decided I was not going to miss out on the fun tonight,” he announced, working the folksy side of his persona, dropping consonants and emphasizing his Chicago credentials as if the city had been the only possible choice. (He also considered sites in Honolulu and New York City.)

“Instead of building a conventional library, we wanted to build a center,” he told the crowd. “We wanted it to be meaningful and we wanted it to be fun, so then the question was, ‘So where are we going to put it?’ And Michelle and I talked and that part was easy, because, on the South Side of Chicago”—here he is interrupted by cheers and clapping—“on the South Side of Chicago, I first arrived in this great city and I got my first job in public service and community organizing…

“And I met a girl from the South Side named Michelle Obama, then she was Michelle Robinson, and we got married and we lived in my outstanding mother-in-law’s house [laughter] until we saved enough to buy our first condo on the South Side of Chicago. And then we had Malia Obama, born on the South Side, and Sasha on the South Side, and I was elected to my first office on the South Side and started running for Senate on the South Side and [he’s winding up now] became president because of the South Side of Chicago.”

I am one of you, he was saying. Trust me. I am not here to destroy your Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park with my library (as some park and preservation advocates fear). I am not here to raise the rent on your homes or create a center that won’t have economic benefits for the neighborhood (as some local community organizations fear).

But Obama can never again be just a community organizer and father of two from the South Side. He is a president. His center has the support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the University of Chicago—entities that have a far more checkered record on the South Side. He has million-dollar donations from Shonda Rhimes, Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, and mega-foundations like Ford, Gates, George Lucas, and Goldman Sachs.

The architectural direction reflects this identity problem. Designs for the Obama Presidential Center by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates show a project trapped between what have traditionally been two different kinds of buildings: one, that of the Acropolis-like presidential library, and two, that of the street-facing urban institution.

Protests over the use of the park and community benefits are about larger, somewhat intangible issues, and yet they stem from this conceptual fuzziness. Is the center to be in Chicago—a trophy—or of Chicago—a worker bee? Until this tension is resolved, it is difficult to see how the center can fulfill its ambitions and be the boon everyone, even those asking pointed questions about gentrification, jobs, and equity, want it to be.

Even when the center’s design is resolved, the building itself can’t address displacement, a primary ask of the proposed Community Benefits Agreement, but it can provide jobs for locals, support neighboring businesses by increasing foot traffic, and aid local schools. This morning, the foundation and Urban Alliance launched the Obama Youth Jobs Corps, which will provide job training and internships for South Side high school students.

The foundation’s construction team, Lakeside Alliance, is a joint venture that includes several of the city’s African-American owned firms and has set hiring 50 percent diverse subcontractors as a goal; the CBA activists want a commitment that Obama said might become an endless negotiation.

At a Wednesday, March 7, symposium on the Obama Center—which representatives from the foundation and the university declined to attend—participants called for transparency: J. Brian Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said, “What we have is a situation where the Obama Presidential Center can be a Trojan horse that will drive displacement and gentrification in this part of town.”

Malone noted that in 2017, despite Obama’s protestations that only “Malia’s kids” would have to worry about rising property values, the neighborhood “had the third highest increase in property value in the country… When the mayor was asked about this—I’ll wait for the boos and hisses—he said that it was a sign of good things to come. The question that came to my mind was, ‘Good things for who?’” He added that almost 80 percent of Woodlawn’s residents rent.

Both Barack and Michelle Obama have made it clear that the center will be unlike any previous presidential library: a living place, not a research center or memorial, where the emphasis will be on programming, not hagiography. Obama’s presidential papers will be housed elsewhere, in a federal facility that adheres to strict National Archives and Records Agency standards. That means the center can be much smaller, and the Obama Foundation can be an independent nonprofit.

So far, the architecture and landscape design of the Obama Center has been presented gingerly, in site model and renderings by DBOX that appear purposefully blurry. In one, of a path through the landscape toward the new tower and the existing Museum of Science and Industry, a neoclassical hand-me-down from the 1893 World’s Fair, the autumn leaves eclipse the pale buildings.

We know that a render can achieve photographic perfection: Offering the public these out-of-focus pictures is a strategy intended to indicate that they are placeholders for an architecture whose details are yet to be determined. As Peter Zumthor worked and reworked his design for LACMA—black to beige, blob to mastodon—the renderings had a similar blur and presented a limited number of angles. Don’t rush to judgment, they said, as if they (or we) have a choice. Wait too long, and you end up where we are now, with so much unknown while so much else seems set in stone.

But now the project is under review, and it seems impossible to evaluate its impact without sharper focus. And Obama, in his February remarks, suggested that there comes a time when consultation is over: “At a certain point,” he said, “you have to get going.”

The buildings cover a diverse program: the Forum, a two-story event space for gatherings, like the Obama Summit, held last fall, with a winter garden and a restaurant; the Library, which, sans archives, may house a branch of the Chicago Public Library; the Athletic Center, a public gym with classes; and the Museum, which will house exhibitions about the Obamas in the context of civil rights, African-American, local, and national history.

Outside, these three buildings—clad in buff-colored stone—are grouped around a paved plaza large enough for performances, and surrounded on their park sides by a playground, a bowl-shaped lawn and sledding hill, Van Valkenburgh’s signature winding paths, and a garden.

It is clear, mostly from the model, that this is not an urban design. You could put this ensemble on a green field anywhere in America. (The same is true of the other urban presidential library, JFK’s in Boston, alone on its promontory and reachable by bus.) It doesn’t meet the sidewalk. It has no neighbors. It makes a gesture to the skyline, in the form of the tower, but does nothing for the street.

There aren’t any renderings of what it will look like to a visitor walking from the Metra station or standing on the central plaza or even coming up from the underground parking garage—and why not? The design begs for a panorama of the entrances to the museum (left), the forum (center), and the library (right).

“It’s difficult to see how the center can fulfill its ambitions and be the boon everyone wants it to be.”

Obama is the one who told his equally sedate architects to pump it up, producing the unconvincing and out-of-place Museum tower, a sandwich where museum galleries are the filling and public space the bread. There seems no purpose, beyond fear of a lack of grandeur or in being architecturally unpresidential, in making it tall. Are people coming to Jackson Park for the view?

Meanwhile, the other buildings are pressed as much as possible into the earth, disguised with berms and gardens. If you approach through the park, so the renderings say, you won’t even notice that they are there. I’ve written in the past about the lie of such wedge buildings: They suggest they are disturbing nothing, while disturbing everything. (I’m thankful local opponents saw through the ruse, and stopped the first grass-covered parking structure from being built across the street in the Midway Plaisance.) Why so shy?

The primary reason is the site: Jackson Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1871, and hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The Cultural Landscape Foundation has long opposed putting the Obama Center in either Jackson or Washington parks, both shortlisted sites, arguing that the new buildings represent a confiscation of public land, an overturning of Olmsted’s vision, and an unnecessary conflict between designers.

In February, Preservation Chicago put Jackson Park on its 2018 “Chicago 7 Most Endangered List” for the second year in a row, along with Helmut Jahn’s postmodern Thompson Center and the 1923 Woodruff Arcade.

Beyond the fact that these are Olmsted parks—which triggers the historic review—they are large, naturalistic, green spaces in the heart of the city and the kind of parks it is difficult to make today. Choosing a park site, and then choosing Jackson Park, seems like a decision born in part of a desire for a “presidential” setting, an unconflicted frame for an important building. At the February 27 forum, Obama said he wanted Jackson Park to look as good as the parks on the North Side, but being in the park isn’t the only way to accomplish that—adjacency and investment could too. Choosing a park site immediately makes the Obama Foundation’s stated goals more difficult because it makes direct access to amenities hard to see.

Obama says he wants a set of new public facilities, situated in the neighborhood, that will spur additional investment and raise the standard of living for residents. A public library, a theater, a gym, and a museum could all be situated on a commercial strip, created through a combination of adaptive reuse and new buildings. Parking could be minimized, rather than hidden underground, so most visitors would have to use public transportation, drawing them by restaurants and shops run by other people. A vacant site could become a new playground, a new building could be roofed with a vegetable garden, adding to the park-shed.

Visitors will be able to drive in to the center and never leave, but even if they take the Metra to the 59th or 63rd Street stations, the walk from transit won’t take them past other businesses, but past residences and Hyde Park Academy High School. There’s no retail strip awaiting incubation on that part of Stony. Its location seems to minimize options for spillover and exploration; I expect a line of food trucks to pop up within weeks of the opening.

The current dean of neighborhood development, historic preservation, and dispersed cultural programming spoke at the first Obama Foundation Summit last year: artist and South Side champion Theaster Gates. His Stony Island Arts Bank, part of an urban village of buildings he and the Rebuild Foundation renovated and restored within a few blocks of each other, are approximately a 20-minute walk away.

Not presidential enough? Perhaps. But several of the firms on the project’s shortlist have an excellent track record with small monuments, embedded in the urban fabric.

The leading example of this strategy is the Menil Foundation campus in Houston, with a museum and gallery by Renzo Piano, art chapels by Philip Johnson and Francois de Menil, and existing bungalows, purchased by John and Dominique de Menil and painted a uniform gray, matching the museum. It is low-rise, but it is in town. Renzo Piano Building Workshop, also the architects of a recent addition to the Art Institute of Chicago, were on the list. The Menil campus is motley and cohesive, monumental and casual, and allows for each building to be fit to purpose. It would be some kind of wonderful to walk through a restored Chicago storefront and find yourself in the Oval Office replica no presidential museum can do without.

John Ronan, also on the shortlist, is probably best known for his Poetry Foundation building, completed in 2011, a two-story building that sits on a dense block in the city’s River North neighborhood. Despite its modesty, it still manages to incorporate a garden, a performance space, and a double-height library. It feels thoughtful and grand.

It would be some kind of wonderful to walk through a restored Chicago storefront and find yourself in the Oval Office replica no presidential museum can do without.
Ronan’s proposal for the Obama Center site in Washington Park built on the Poetry Center model. This site was the alternate in the University of Chicago’s still-undisclosed bid for the center, and was preferred by many because part of the acreage was outside the park, because it is accessible by the El, and because of the possibilities of connection to the DuSable Museum of African American History.

Ronan chose the 11 acres owned by the University of Chicago across the street from Washington Park, and left the park alone, putting all of the center’s facilities in the city grid, with access to a beautiful view. His building, which resembles boxes within boxes, is also oriented around a central courtyard, but runs right up to the edge of the sidewalk. Once inside, the uses are mixed and matched, stacked on top of one another so, in one view, runners jog past the plaza at the second story.

Ronan’s proposal for Jackson Park, on the other hand, looks like Apple Park on stilts, overlooking the lake. It’s so alien when I saw it I suspected he was trying to tip the scales toward Washington Park.

When Obama speaks about his aspirations for the center as a destination on the South Side, a catalyst for opportunity, and a catalyst for upgrading the neighborhood’s broken sidewalks and underloved parks—to him, a positive, with gentrification a long way off—one can’t help thinking that the catalytic potential would be much greater in the neighborhood. Is there a historic theater that could be transformed into the forum? A bank that could become the public library branch? Some combination of Gates, the Menil, and the Poetry Foundation?

In the essay, and a subsequent architectural proposal that Sorkin passed off to Michelle Obama at the 2013 National Design Awards luncheon at the White House, he placed the center on 63rd Street between Ellis and Woodlawn, approximately six blocks from Jackson Park. In a recent Chicago Tribune article, residents of Jackson Park Highlands suggested East 71st Street, another down-on-its-luck retail strip, as a potential beneficiary of increased traffic to the center.

Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago had more suggestions for alternate sites on the South Side, including one along the Midway, at 60th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, right across from TWBTA’s Logan Center (likely the building, along with the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, that got their names on the shortlist). The specifics are less important than the idea that if Obama were to change the site he would not lack for options.

If you weren’t building in the park, you wouldn’t have to hide the bulk of the enterprise underground. If you weren’t building in the park, each part of the project would have room to grow. If you weren’t building in the park, the connections to the community would be physical.

If you are building in the park, the design has to overcome these barriers and show, physically, how it will improve that park and wide Stony Island Avenue, how its buildings will entice passersby, how its millions of visitors will find other restaurants, other shops, and other cultural resources on the South Side.

The Obama Presidential Center can and probably will remain in Jackson Park, absent major objections from government reviewers. But it doesn’t have to only be in Jackson Park. It won’t be a proper tribute until its architecture embodies the values of the ambitious program the Obamas have laid out—one which extends his presidency into the future.