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Chicago will soon be home to the Obama Presidential Center. Here’s a look at what we know so far.

By Judson Picco and Patrick Miner

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 Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

The Site

The Obama Foundation considered a pair of South Side parks as sites for the Presidential Center: Washington Park and Jackson Park. Both were designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

In July 2016, the Obama Foundation selected Jackson Park as the center’s site. In 1893, this historic lakefront park played host to the World’s Columbian Exposition. In fact, the Obama Center will be built on the same land that was once home to the World’s Fair’s massive greenhouse. It will also be just a few steps away from the Museum of Science and Industry, which is housed in the Palace of Fine Arts that was built for the World’s Fair. The center will be situated in the Woodlawn neighborhood between 60th and 63rd streets, along Stony Island Avenue and across from Hyde Park Academy High School.

The Architectural Team

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. In January 2017, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates was selected to lead the center's landscape design.

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.”

Michael Van Valkenburgh's New York City-based firm has already made its mark on Chicago with its designs for Maggie Daley Park and the 606. They'll work alongside Chicago-based Site Design Group and Living Habitats on the center's landscape architecture.

The Design

The Obamas released a conceptual vision and site map for the Center in May 2017. It will include three buildings—a museum, forum and library—that will form a campus surrounding a public plaza. The museum will be the tallest of the three buildings and hold an exhibition space, offices and education and meeting rooms. The forum and library will be single-story community buildings, with an auditorium, a restaurant, a public garden and planted roof terraces.

Plans call for a re-shaping of the Jackson Park as well, to increase green space. All the buildings will be connected below grade and “clad in a lively, warm and variegated stone,” with glass openings deliberately placed to bring in natural light and form courtyards, mark entries and frame views, according to the Obama Foundation. In addition, the project will be certified at a minimum LEED v4 Platinum and range between 200,000 and 225,000 gross square feet.

“The Obamas want to create a safe, warm, inviting place that brings people in, teaches them something new and inspires them to create change in their own communities. The Center will be a place for doing, not just looking or listening,” said Marty Nesbitt, chair of the Obama Foundation. “The place we are developing will be integrally a part of Jackson Park. Our team’s approach is to weave the project into the park and use the Center to unlock the full potential of the park and engage the community in the Foundation’s work."

What’s Next

The Obama Center is expected to open in 2021. Throughout 2017, further information about the building and its design will be unveiled. We’ll be following the story and updating you as the news breaks.