Obama’s Landscape Legacy Takes Shape

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Site Design Group, and Living Habitats will lead the landscape design team.

By Zach Mortice

31st Street Harbor in Chicago, by Site Design Group and AECOM. Image courtesy of Rose Yuen Photography.

The Obama Foundation on January 30 announced the selection of three landscape architecture firms to work on the Obama Presidential Center on the South Side of Chicago—a nationally renowned firm, a regional Chicago powerhouse headed by a native South Sider, and a lesser-known firm that has worked on previous presidential library landscapes.

The New York-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the 2016 ASLA Landscape Architecture Firm Award recipient and designer of the landscape of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, will lead the group. Chicago’s Site Design Group joins the team, offering extensive experience with the Chicago Park District, which, controversially, turned over the presidential library’s site to the city so that it could be transferred to the Obama Foundation. Finally, Living Habitats, also based in Chicago, rounds out the team, having designed the green roof landscape of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Arkansas. These three firms will work with Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and Interactive Design Architects on a narrow slice of land at the western edge of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Jackson Park, the site of the 1893 World’s Fair, next to Lake Michigan. Site Design Group is a certified minority-owned business; Living Habitats is a certified woman-owned business. “It has always been the foundation’s mission throughout this entire process to develop as much inclusivity as possible in terms of putting together teams [of] minority and women [led firms],” says Site Design Group’s founder, Ernie Wong, FASLA.

In a statement, the Obama Foundation CEO David Simas said: “This highly skilled and diverse team stood out in their commitment to creating accessible public spaces that honor their environment, community, and history.” Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Living Habitats did not return phone calls seeking comment, and the Obama Foundation declined comment as well.

The project began with offers by the University of Chicago (which backed the winning Obama library bid) of sites it did not own, namely parkland owned by the Park District. The dozens of acres to be subtracted from public parkland for private use galled national and local landscape preservation groups, especially given that the University of Chicago owned a vacant 11-acre parcel just across the street from the Olmsted-and-Vaux-designed Washington Park, the other site the school was pitching. The selection of Jackson Park, however, has reduced historic preservation concerns a bit, as it’s a less intact example of Olmsted’s original design.

In a statement, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, said his firm is “committed to creating an Obama Presidential Center that honors the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted, and at the same time is accessible, inspirational, and joyful.”

Wong echoed Van Valkenburgh’s sentiments. “I truly believe the intent here is to really infuse the whole center into the park, and really respect Olmsted’s thoughts and original concepts,” he says. “That’s always been the goal, to get the complex to blend into the landscape.”

Mary Bartelme Park in Chicago by Site Design Group. Photo by Robert Sit.

No formal roles or plans for the three firms have been defined yet, but Site Design Group could exert a strong influence on the rest of the team. Their projects have incorporated dramatic topography (even in pancake-flat Chicago) and the expressive exposition of layers of landscape history. Van Valkenburgh’s major Chicago projects have included its kid-friendly Maggie Daley Park, its 606 elevated rail park, or the restored Jens Jensen landscape at the Lathrop Homes, clean restorations that offer interstitial green space with a minimum of editorial comment. The Obama Library landscape will most likely show deference to Olmsted with a low profile. And if the goal is to get the building to truly blend into the landscape, that’s a burden to be shared by both the architects and landscape architects.

Wong met with Van Valkenburgh to discuss the project, and the two spoke about Wong’s connection to the Woodlawn neighborhood where the library will be built. Wong grew up in nearby Hyde Park, and his intimate knowledge of the South Side is likely one of the team’s best assets. What excites him most about the project, he says, is that the Obama Library and its landscape will expose the rest of the world to a section of Chicago that’s seldom well understood. The South Side is often demonized as crime-ridden and rarely given credit for the diversity and civic vitality it possesses. As Wong and his fellow landscape architects seek to blend the Obama Library building into the landscape, they’ll also be trying to blend the South Side into the rest of the city’s elite cultural fabric as well.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

Correction: This post originally included a photograph of The Park at Lakeshore East in Chicago, which was identified as a Site Design Group project. Site Design Group served as the local landscape architect of record in the initial design phase of the project. The design architect was the Office of James Burnett. The photo has been replaced with a photo of Site Design Group’s Mary Bartelme Park. 

2 thoughts on “Obama’s Landscape Legacy Takes Shape”

  1. The Obama Presidential Center will add a neat facelift to the South Side; I am looking forward to seeing how the center will blend in with the rest of its surrounding landscape. Most certainly, it will be a welcoming project that will add a distinctive addition for the area. The center will bustle with activity…that’s for sure.

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