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.
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.