Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Obama Presidential Center

A view of the Obama Presidential Center campus experienced from the south (rendering published by the Obama Foundation).

The Obama Foundation unveiled the much-anticipated initial design concept by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA) for the Obama Presidential Center this past week. The foundation envisions the project being much more than a building on Chicago's South Side; its hope is the Center will be a place that inspires people globally to be citizens of a democratic world. That ambition imposes a substantial burden of expectations upon the Center’s architecture. Whether the TWBTA design meets those expectations remains to be seen, certainly not until long after it opens sometime in 2021.
A presidential library is, to a degree, a shrine to the president’s ego. Over time, the libraries have progressed from primarily being repositories for presidential documents to serving as monuments to each retired POTUS. Most visitors do not arrive to conduct archival research but rather to tour immersive museum exhibits. They come as tourists rather than scholars. Undeniably, the de facto purpose of the libraries is primarily to commemorate each president’s achievements (while most often engaging in spin by whitewashing or downplaying controversies). 
Not surprisingly, each library manifests something of the president’s persona in built form; after all, the president is actively involved in its creation (the John F. Kennedy Library being a noteworthy exception, in which instance the president's widow, Jackie, worked with architect I.M. Pei). This includes selecting architects whose work is sympathetic to and consistent with the public’s perception of those personas. The Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California by Hugh Stubbins and Associates, despite its large size, features a relaxed, Mission-style design. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, designed by Polshek Partnership Architects, is unashamedly modernist; by contrast, the George W. Bush Library in Dallas, Texas is a conservative, historicizing composition by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. It’s not a stretch to imagine that any enthusiast of the presidency might be able to guess which library is associated with which president simply by viewing photographs of the buildings.(1)
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston (photo by Fcb981, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons). This is the only presidential library I've actually visited.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA
William Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, AR (photo by Archipreneur [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

George W. Bush Presidential Center (photo by J. P. Fagerback [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)
Despite its pretensions to being in the words of the Obama Foundation “an ongoing project for us to shape, together, what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century,” the Obama Presidential Center will inevitably be regarded as a reflection of Barack Obama and his tenure in office. How can it not? Architecture can be many things, but it most certainly is a vehicle for the conveyance of meaning and allusion. For many, despite the challenges and frustrations of his two terms in office in the face of intransigent political opposition, Obama remains a symbol of hope, transcendence, and progressivism. 
So, what are my impressions of the proposed design and what it says about the Obama presidency and its legacy? Will it be a “transformative” building in the same way Barack Obama views himself as a transformative figure?
My answer to these questions is it’s too early to know. It’s premature to pass judgment solely based on a preliminary model and renderings. Architects know too well how their designs can evolve profoundly through the course of the design process. Sometimes changes are a consequence of forces beyond the architects’ control, such as when the client modifies the functional brief or simply wants to do something different. On other occasions, they’re the outcome of the architects’ own reflection and iterative analysis. The most successful projects are the products of constant improvement from the start until they’re occupied and beyond. Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall is a case in point; Gehry radically altered its design during the lengthy period that transpired between the 1988 design competition and its completion in 2003.
Top: Frank Gehry in 1988 with a model of his competition-winning design for the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Bottom: The finished building in 2003, a completely different design.
I was pleased when the President and First Lady announced the selection of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (along with Interactive Design Architects) for the Obama Presidential Center project. While I have yet to visit a TWBTA design in person, I am impressed with the obvious display of craft, thoughtfulness, and deference to site and program evident in photographs. I’ve long believed it is perilous to evaluate the merits of buildings and places without visiting them but my understanding of TWBTA’s approach to its work and the accolades for the firm’s oeuvre bolster my confidence in their abilities. Their work displays an obvious maturity, expressing principles that emphasize the values of experience, perception, and slowness of method. They are architects of sensitivity and subtlety rather than bombast and posturing. 
A favorite TWBTA project: The Scripps Neurosciences Institute
Immediate reactions from others(2) to the Obama Presidential Center design have mostly focused upon how it melds landscape and building (a common TWBTA theme), or the curious museum tower, which calls to mind (as Chicago Tribune columnist Blair Kamin said) nothing if not a portly Pharaonic monolith. Regarding the 180-foot-tall tower—the Center’s focal point—some have reported TWBTA designed it in response to President Obama’s entreaty upon seeing earlier, understated concepts for something more impressive. I fully expect the architects will variously reconsider and revise their design, and would not be surprised in the least if it ultimately looks much different than what the current model and renderings suggest. 
A model view of the Obama Presidential Center showing its Jackson Park context in Chicago.
Ultimately, the architecture of any presidential library cannot by itself redeem the shortcomings of a presidency, nor does the architecture possess the power to extend and polish its legacy. That being said, I do look forward to seeing if the architecture of the new Obama Presidential Center will help the Obama Foundation realize its lofty goals. Will the 44th president of the United States, a sophisticated politician whose soaring rhetoric, power to inspire, and appeal on the world stage are unrivaled, likewise be rewarded with an appropriate built homage? Time will tell.   
It was during a luncheon for the 2009 National Design Awards that Michelle Obama described how “great designers design with mankind in mind, building on the innovations of the past to shape a better future.” Today, as she and her husband work with Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, I look forward to seeing how the Obama Presidential Center will fulfill that ideal. 

(1)   I can only imagine what a Donald J. Trump Presidential Library/Museum might look like. Undoubtedly, it would be another extension of the Trump brand, perhaps a preposterously gilded exercise in “Dictator Chic.”

(2)   A lot of press accompanied the unveiling of the proposed design. Here’s a sampling:


Matthew Hale, Architect, Wake Forest NC said...

Thanks for a well-researched and thoughtful treatise on Presidential Libraries. While it appears the purpose of these facilities is often to re-frame history and polish the reputation of their namesakes, the Obama facility has the potential to create a new paradigm for this unique building type. In my opinion, Obama's presidency reflected the values and societal aspirations of this former community organizer: inclusion, kindness, gentility, empowerment, good health. It appears the design program for the Obama facility reflects many of these values. But community engagement opportunities need not come only after substantial completion of the project. Its very location in Southside Chicago provides an opportunity to train unemployed residents for construction-related jobs. The technical training could be a part of the project funding, conducted in conjunction with local trade unions and could begin well before the first shovel is turned. The Obama facility would give these new apprentices many months to hone their skills before joining the workforce. Am I being too idealistic?

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...

Matthew: Too idealistic? Not at all. You may be spot on with your belief that the Obama Center may presage a new type of presidential library. I'm optimistic the project's design, its mission, and what it heralds for Chicago's South Side will indeed surpass the high hopes the Obama Foundation have for it. Thanks for your well-considered comment.