Save Chicago’s Jackson Park

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The campus of the Obama Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park. (Obama Foundation)

The 543 acres of Chicago’s Jackson Park, site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, are not existentially threatened by plans to slice off 22 of its acres for Barack Obama’s presidential center. However, this park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the nation’s two greatest landscape architects, and the proposed “obelisk” design of the Obama Center’s squat Museum Building is an affront to the park’s historical character. It is for other reasons, however, that community organizers in Chicago’s South Side community are organizing against this presidential project.

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The original Obama Center design. (TWBT)

Just this week, the facility’s proponents announced a slenderer and less monolithic design, by the same firm, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. The new version squishes it in, squashing it up from 178 to 235 feet (still quite squat), and adds a new decorative motif. The Obama Foundation also announced that the 400-car parking garage on the Midway Plaisance (a major part of the original 1893 fairgrounds) would be relocated under the Museum Building.

But look at the latest design, on top. What is that rash in the upper right corner? Taken along with the cutouts in the lower right and upper left corner – which make it look like an Escheresque version of Providence’s Old Stone Square – you can just imagine Billie Tsien and Tod Williams scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to make the structure even more wildly different than any other presidential library in history, and yet not so wildly different as to offend the sensibilities of those who live and work nearby. These include former colleagues of the president at the University of Chicago, where Obama taught constitutional law from 1992 to 2004.

That the architects failed is perhaps not Obama’s fault. Obama’s only the client, and in these sorts of high-octane jobs, the client is probably as deeply sunk in error as the architects. Still, the day after the new design was announced, 100 faculty members at Chicago greeted it with a professorial Bronx cheer of protest.

We are concerned that rather than becoming a bold vision for urban living in the future it will soon become an object-lesson in the mistakes of the past.

Yes, the project is steeped in the mistakes of the past – the recent past’s design dystopia of architects who forgot the lessons of their fathers, or their grandfathers, and kick-boxed into a cocked hat the Jeffersonian ideals of our national culture.

The professors did not object to the architecture – for they have surely quaffed as much design Kool Aid as Obama and his architects. Rather, it “destroys a historic park,” “leaves no room for economic development,” “is socially regressive,” “donates public land to a private entity” (the Obama Foundation) and “wastes taxpayer money.”

No doubt. Even without taking any offense at the assault on beauty, that’s a lot for a community organizer to chew on. So, according to the Daily Caller, the “furious” professors want the presidential center “moved elsewhere” (elsewhere on the South Side, that is).

Of course, nobody who has any respect for history could possibly disagree. To reform the design sufficiently to ameliorate merely its design deformities is probably beyond the capacity – and the will – of the president and his architects. The other complaints are beyond the scope of this analysis. Still, those who would wish to see it built without having to cringe at the result may take some comfort, perhaps, in the audacity of hope.

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Jackson Park originally was the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, whose temporary structures burned down after the fair. (Wikipedia)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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9 Responses to Save Chicago’s Jackson Park

  1. will says:

    Its a shamefully ugly proposal. Yet I don’t think citing the Daily Caller is a great technique for spreading the word on the merits of classical design.

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    • I don’t allow political correctness to limit my choice of sources. Publications of the left and right are equally fine with me as long as they have something interesting to say. Anyway, the Daily Caller piece had nothing to say about the merits of the design, classical or otherwise.

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      • will says:

        I’m confused as to this blog being frustrated by Classical architecture’s association with German and Italian fascism but also will cite a website that employs and publishes individuals directly tied to white supremacist groups. The Daily Caller’s hiring and publishing of known contemporary fascists is not a judgement of political correctness but objective fact (please consult analysis by Southern Poverty Law Center).

        The article mentioned isn’t about the merits of classical design, but this blog is. Using such a website on behalf of any point made by this blog won’t increase the distance between Classical architecture and fascism.

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        • kristen says:

          I agree with Will completely — and very disappointed that you would go there, David. The 599 vitriolic comments (as of now) are so thoroughly despicable (“craven temple of doom”)…sadly, such things, I fear, are being “normalized” in our current fractured and fractious political climate. There were plenty of other sources to link to that addressed both the university profs’ protest and the new design — though perhaps not as mainstream as The Daily Caller…little local rags you’ve probably heard of called the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, among others. (left and right publications being “equally fine” rings a bit like “there were good people on both sides” in Charlottesville — if not linking to local press, you could consider changing the Caller link to the professors’ actual statement and avoid giving the Caller any air time: https://facultyobamaletter.wufoo.com/forms/z3524m71bfuyo8/ ).

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          • Kristen, see my reply to Will below. Guilt by association is faulty, illogical thinking. I’m sure you do not really believe that every person who likes traditional architecture is alt-right, but that is what Will believes, whether he admits it or not. I will not abandon a good idea just because it is held by people I otherwise disagree with. (Anyway, it seems that any conservative is now slandered as a member of the “alt-right,” which supposedly is racist, and which did not exist before the election was half over last year, in an effort by the left to conflate conservatism with racism and white supremicism.) I do not consider the D.C. Caller as either racist or alt-right. It is conservative. Also, the SPLC has had its own problems with tainted credibility.

            Someone sent me the article about the Obama museum in the D.C. Caller, someone who is far from “alt-right,” so I used it because he sent it. Not having heard that the D.C. Caller was “alt-right,” I did not check it out. I do not believe it is alt-right, and I do not believe that many people associated with the alt-right (mainly by the left) are racists or white supremicists. Some may well be, but that goes with all collections of people – members do not always reflect the central tenets of the group.

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        • Classical architecture’s association with German and Italian fascism – huh? What in blazes are you talking about? You are trying to conflate architecture and politics in ways that do not compute. Your whole line of argument is a disgusting example of guilt by association – especially despicable when you are wrong (to use a less ugly word) about the association you perceive, or pretend to perceive. Give me a break and go fill up someone else’s comment section with this rot, Will.

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          • will says:

            These responses land as anger and denial in grieving the rot of a contemporary strain of fascism in the conservative realm of the political spectrum. I apologize for striking a nerve. My intention was to inform rather than accuse. As for my beliefs about those who revere traditional architecture; I proudly work in the trades kneeling at foundations and tip toeing on rooftops to restore 19th century architecture to its original beauty. I read this blog because I thought I was a fellow traveler. Now the thought of being on the same side of an aesthetic debate as this blog lends a radiant glow to vinyl siding. Perhaps I should drop my tools. Surely your decades of gallant service at the keyboard have gifted the callused hands and strong back necessary to carry on my duties in delivering traditional architecture to the next generation.

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  2. Ron Thomas says:

    Historically Jackson Park has an even longer history than the Exposition. Olmsted planned it along with Washington Park as the South Park Plan in Spring of 1871. The tow parks were going by a mall Olmsted called a Plaisance Midway. It was approved just before the Great Fire in November 1871. The Park(s) were built as part of the energetic rebuilding. With his familiarity with the area and the parks were a major reason Olmsted suggested the site area for the exposition including the Plaisance Midway (and the origin of carnival Midways ever since). I have a blueprint copy pdf made from Olmsted’s original South Park Plan at the Chicago Parks Department (as well as the 1971 narrative). Can send along. Park was redesigned after the Fair with the addition of the Museum of Science & Industry, the only permanent retained building from the Exposition.

    Like Central Park, there has been a long history of fighting even cultural building intrusions into the green space. Since Chicago’s beginnings about 1847, its founders declared the lake front should remain “Forever Open, Clear and Free” which was a rallying cry when the Children’s Museum proposed a new facility in Grant Park. (See the 1991 book of same name by Lois Willie)

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