The Obama Center: New Views for Whom?

The Obama Presidential Center must prioritize complete public access in order to earn its place in Olmsted’s Jackson Park.

By Zach Mortice

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s lantern-like Obama museum building. Image courtesy of the Obama Foundation.

The most important question related to the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side doesn’t have that much to do with its architecture.

It is instead: What kind of landscape stewardship can a presidential museum and library offer? To be located in Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Jackson Park, the project already has a heap of canonical landscape history to contend with. So can the Obama library make a great park greater?

The answer is…probably. After an initial press conference in early May, park-watchers have a few renderings and diagrams of the museum and library complex, to be designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

The landscape plan (by the lead landscape designers Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, with Site Design Group and Living Habitats) consolidates much of the complex’s new programming in a tall, lantern-shaped museum building rendered in rough-hewn masonry, a luxurious Williams and Tsien signature, leaving plenty of room for green space. It also deletes all six lanes of Cornell Drive from this section of Jackson Park, which lets the museum and library stretch farther toward a lagoon and island. (Van Valkenburgh and Site Design Group declined to comment on the preliminary design.)

When the landscape team was announced last winter, Ernest Wong, FASLA, of Site Design Group told LAM that his goal was to engage with Olmsted’s plan to “get the complex to blend into the landscape.” These initial designs follow up on Wong’s intentions. Olmstedian curving tendrils extend toward the presidential center’s core, where they’re converted into rectilinear paths and a broad plaza between the museum and the low-slung library. A circular reflecting pool to the north of the museum synthesizes the exacting geometry of the new plan’s core and nature’s meandering imperfections as designed by Olmsted.

Olmsted’s curving paths converge at the Obama Presidential Center and merge into a broad rectilinear plaza. Image courtesy of the Obama Foundation.

Getting a building to blend (or bury) into a landscape requires some heavy lifting on the part of the topography and landscape itself, and that might be the most thrilling element of this plan. Winding paths from the east will take visitors up an embankment and onto the single-story library building’s green roof, where they will encounter more topography. The gradual reveal-and-obscure tensions continue on the roof through a series of small hills and glens, planted with trees and punctuated by skylights into the library. Any natural topography raises eyebrows in pancake-flat Chicago; it’s an element Wong has already used expertly in some of the city’s best and most inventive parks.

The library’s grounds are likely to be a singular green space in a city with a world-class park system. But there’s already some quintessentially Chicago precedent for a landscape that boosts patrons up a few dozen feet so they can crane their necks at architectural marvels (as the Obama Foundation surely hopes its museum will be). That would be the city’s El trains (or similarly, MVVA’s own 606 elevated rail park). The view of the city from the El train window is an iconic perspective on Chicago that’s influenced its visual history and culture. If the Obama library green roof can generate the same sense of above-but-not-quite-beyond-the-city linear experience, it will go a long way toward handing Jackson Park a new amenity. And the library will be able to offer one view the El can’t: No CTA train gets this close to Lake Michigan.

Green roofs cover the Obama library. Image courtesy of the Obama Foundation.

So this new landscape has the potential to improve upon the already very good. But for whom? Will these grounds remain public and accessible for all South Siders and Chicagoans, free of charge? (The Obama Foundation website states: “The campus will be open to the public, and the Center will include indoor and outdoor spaces for events, trainings, and other gatherings.”) Surrounding the Obama Presidential Center are South Siders who are worried about new development’s pricing them out, people wary of the ever-expanding cultural footprint of the University of Chicago (which backed the winning bid), and those who cheer it on. Most on the South Side and beyond welcome the museum and library. But unless all of the above have access to this landscape all the time, the Obama Foundation will be compounding a past wrong. The Obama Foundation came to Jackson Park after the University of Chicago offered public land in the park it did not own for private development. Meanwhile, the university owns many nearby parcels, including 11 vacant acres across the street from Washington Park (also designed by Olmsted and Vaux)—an alternative site pitched for the museum. Ensuring that the new Jackson Park landscape is always accessible to everyone will make it part of the South Side, and prove some benefit can come out of the transactional way we develop culture for the public good.

The future site of the Obama Presidential Library, in Jackson Park between 60th and 63rd Streets. Photo by Zach Mortice.
Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side, looking southeast. Photo by Zach Mortice.

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

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