Architects React to Obama Presidential Center Conceptual Vision

Posted by: Bill Cook 05/25/2017

Obama Hero
Courtesy of The Obama Foundation

Just days after Michelle Obama served as keynote speaker at AIA Convention on Architecture 2017, she united with her husband on the South Side of Chicago for the unveiling of the Obama Presidential Center. Greeted by a crowd of enthusiastic community stakeholders, the Obamas were joined by Dina Griffin of Interactive Design Architects and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, who are collaborating on the project with the former first family.

While the presentation only provided conceptual design elements, such as site plans, perspectives and a model, the future of The Center is clear. This is no Presidential library, rather a campus designed for civic engagement and exploration. Integrated into the historic Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side, residents and visitors will be encouraged to explore the community and bring people together for events, recreation and programming.

“We believe the Center will restore the promise of Jackson Park as the people’s park,” says the Obama Foundation. “Building upon its history as a recreational destination for gathering on the South Side for families, community members, and visitors.” According to the foundation, the Obamas chose to build The Center in this part of the city as a way to give back to the community that has given them so much in return.

 

A Timely Announcement

Ironically, the unveiling of the Obama Presidential Center came mere days after former First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a rousing keynote address at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 in Orlando, Florida. Stoner Bunting was in attendance for the speech, and our team was excited to sit among 10,000 convention attendees to hear Obama discuss ideas and concepts for the center before its official unveiling.

Obama Center Model
Courtesy of The Obama Foundation

Obama spoke specifically about civic engagement and creating spaces that not only look fantastic, but make people feel included, important and above all equal. “Poor people know they are poor,” she said. “They know that society doesn’t care about them and they know that their houses, their schools, and their community centers don’t look good.” It was a powerful and sobering moment that helped many architects and designers think twice about democracy and equality within the industry and across the country.

Therefore, a primary goal of the Obamas is to use landscape design that will blend seamlessly with Jackson Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, beautifying the area and restoring its place in the cityscape of Chicago. By setting The Center in the public space, the campus will invite visitors to flow through the architecture and into the park. This approach will soften the transition between city, landscape, lagoon, and lake, while providing multiple “everyday” community uses beyond visiting the museum or library.

A primary goal of the Obamas is to use landscape design that will blend seamlessly with Jackson Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Center will also be a testament to the Obama’s commitment to sustainability and environmentalism. The project will, at a minimum, be LEED v4 Platinum, and the organization and architects are exploring the possibility of surpassing these qualifications by the time the final design is approved.

Obama Center Library
Courtesy of The Obama Foundation

Architects React

“I can also honestly say I DO very much like the design,” says Donna Sink, AIA. Sink has served as the Campus Architect at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for the past five years, and recently joined Indianapolis-based Rowland Design. “I love how humble and rooted it is, close to the earth, not showy. It doesn’t use simplistic notions of design to convey power or exclusivity – instead it is a slow, organically-composed community space, both by design and by program.”

I love how humble and rooted it is, close to the earth, not showy. It doesn’t use simplistic notions of design to convey power or exclusivity – instead it is a slow, organically-composed community space, both by design and by program. — Donna Sink, AIA

Scott Knudson, Principal at Knu Design, LLC, agrees with Sink. “This is a unique expression of who the President is, and is exactly what great architecture is supposed to be. Instead of applying a mold to The Center we see a unique approach that is true to its personage and time and place in history.”

Sink also believes The Center is a successful representation of Obama and his legacy. “Robert A.M. Stern’s fasci-classical George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas is absolutely appropriately tasteful and yet fortress-like to represent the closed and inflexible attitudes of that administration, and Polshek’s William J. Clinton Library and Museum is exuberant, flashy and contemporary, while also hitting LEED Platinum: respectable when it matters but also a little bit fresh. As a building typology, the fact that TWBTA’s design is close to the ground and covered with parkland is both humble and giving to the community, which in my mind makes it more of what Obama claims he wants to be post-POTUS: an active citizen, just like all of us.”

 

The Next Steps are Critical

In spite of widespread press coverage and excitement within the industry, we have to remind ourselves that the conceptual vision is just that – a concept. Final design details are pending, and the Obamas have asked for community and industry involvement in helping to refine their ideas. That will be the ultimate test.

However, just like Obama promised a united America nine years ago, there is great hope for The Center. “The fact that a lot of the programmed use is still undefined, and will be coordinated through community involvement, is emblematic of the kind of public service Michelle Obama discussed in her keynote at AIA: serving the people in their communities, and leading from within,” said Sink.

The next steps are critical, but there’s reason to believe that the Obama Presidential Center will be everything it has promised and more.