Chicago will soon be home to the Obama Presidential Center. This summer, the Obama Foundation chose both the architects and the location of the building. Here’s a look at what we know so far.
by Judson Picco, Web Editor
Background on Presidential Libraries
From the austere glass and steel geometry of the Kennedy Library to the Spanish Mission-style of the Reagan Library, the designs of presidential libraries across the country vary as much as the leaders they represent. The architectural ideas of each president’s era also play a role in the final designs. The mission of presidential libraries is to safeguard a president’s papers and to offer an impartial record of his or her time in office. Yet the buildings themselves also have an identity and are designed to display a carefully crafted message about a president’s legacy.
Each president has one or more connections to their library’s chosen location: Six libraries are located in the president’s hometown. Ten libraries are located in the president’s home state. Seven are located near pre-presidential workplaces. Three are located near where the president retired. It’s fitting that the Obama Presidential Center will be built in Chicago as the city is the home (and a former workplace) of President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
The Obama Foundation considered a pair of South Side parks as sites for the Presidential Center: Washington Park and Jackson Park. The parks were originally designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Olmsted and Vaux envisioned the parks as one continuous green space linked by the Midway Plaisance in their 1871 plan for what was then known as “South Park.” Jackson Park’s 543 acres stretch along Lake Michigan’s shoreline and have been home, since 1933, to the Museum of Science and Industry. Just a mile west of Jackson Park’s western edge, Washington Park has boasted its own distinguished cultural institution since 1973: the DuSable Museum of African American History.
In July 2016, the Obama Foundation announced that they’d selected the Jackson Park site. In 1893, this historic lakefront park played host to the World’s Columbian Exposition. In fact, it’s likely that the Obama Center will be built on the same land that was once home to the Fair’s massive greenhouse. Known as the Horticultural Building, it was co-designed by William Le Baron Jenney and William B. Mundie and was supported by a skeleton of metal—a structural innovation that also helped to make Chicago’s skyscrapers possible. The Obama Center’s site lies in the Woodlawn neighborhood between 60th and 63rd Streets along Stony Island Avenue. It will be across the street from Hyde Park Academy High School and just a few blocks from the Museum of Science and Industry.
In June 2016, the Obama Foundation announced their selection of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and Interactive Design Architects (IDEA) to design the Obama Presidential Center.
Williams and Tsien are an acclaimed New York-based husband-and-wife team who designed the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in 2012. The Logan Center, located just south of the Midway Plaisance and a few blocks from the Obama Center’s future site, is a unique multi-disciplinary arts center. It features generous public space, including large lobbies, an outdoor courtyard, a gallery and two elevated lounges—as well as sustainable elements that earned it LEED Gold Certification. The 11-story tower is topped with a “performance penthouse” that has a fantastic panoramic view of the neighborhood, the Midway and downtown. Of their upcoming work on the Presidential Center, Williams and Tsien said that “the greatest buildings are places which contribute to more than their particular task by elevating and improving the world.”
Williams and Tsien will be working in collaboration with Interactive Design Architects (IDEA). This Chicago firm is led by Dina Griffin—a lifelong Chicagoan and a resident of the South Side—along with founding partners Charles Young and Robert Larsen. Since 1992, IDEA has designed museums, libraries, academic buildings, facade renovations and municipal structures. They’ve also partnered with some of the world’s leading contemporary architects to provide local expertise, architectural services and project management. For example, during a 10-year collaboration, the firm worked with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop on all phases of the 2009 Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. Dina Griffin said of the Obama Center, “As a native Chicagoan and resident of the South Side, this project is deeply meaningful to me and I could not be more excited.”
As of press time, the Obama Foundation had just announced the Jackson Park location for the Obama Presidential Center. Designs from Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and IDEA have not yet been unveiled. Further information about the building and its design is expected in 2017 after President Obama leaves office. Until then, we’ll be following the story and updating you with any breaking news.