Chicago can solve the crisis of its proposed Obama Presidential Center by transferring it from Jackson Park to the nearby Midway Plaisance, the strip of land best known as the sideshows of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. So say a pair of enterprising urban design graduate students at the University of Notre Dame, working under Prof. Philip Bess. They propose to relocate the planned presidential museum to the underutilized Midway and transform it into a grand boulevard anchored by a recast Obama Center.
Of course, this is unlikely to happen. It is supposedly a mere academic exercise (notwithstanding that, accolades to Marie Acalin and Roger Foreman); but great ideas often extend important conversations. For example, their proposal joins that to rebuild New York’s Penn Station as designed in the early 1900s by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White, a proposal that reinforces the idea that modernist disasters can be fixed by using older, more humane methods of city building.
The status of the Midway today is not a modernist disaster but a lesser problem – a relatively unadorned and under-used green space left behind by the march of time. Here’s how Bess describes the potential transformation of the Midway in “Imagine the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s Midway Plaisance,” written for the Chicago Tribune. The proposal
reimagine[s] the Midway as a baroque-scale urban boulevard, defined spatially to the north and south by new academic and residential buildings, and terminated at each end by monumental architecture. A grand urbane vision informed by Rome, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Chicago’s own Daniel Burnham, their work engages pressing issues of land use, race and class mistrust, neighborhood gentrification and equal justice under the law by proposing traditional Chicago building types, form-based-zoning, incremental development and land-value-taxation … .
Bess, who led another group of grad students in a 2016 project to reimagine Providence’s I-195 District and its proposed 6/10 Connector, adds that the Chicago proposal could “ennoble the Midway, the University of Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center, the adjacent Woodlawn neighborhood and ultimately Chicago itself.” It would “confirm [the Obama presidency] as a watershed achievement of aspirational American ideals of freedom, justice and equality.”
Progress on the Obama center has been slowed by a suit based on public-trust doctrine in Chicago law – mandating protection of historic city land – protests against possible gentrification in the South Side vicinity, and a poorly conceived design uncongenial to historic Jackson Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. At the very least, the grad students’ proposal could improve the Obama center’s prospects by rebranding it on the Midway as a place Chicagoans could love – mooting some of those issues and vaulting the Obama Center above both its off-putting modernist style and the tawdry persona of the typical midway. It would transform them into civic grandeur – albeit with a Ferris wheel at one end. (The first Ferris wheel was built on the Midway for the 1893 fair, and the term “midway” itself came to denote the lunch-‘n’-game-booth sections of state fairs and other playgrounds.)
As the Obama Center proposal’s challenges have deepened, starchitects are sending in their even wackier alternative proposals to dislodge current architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams.
Bess argues that the grad students’ placement of a 250-foot obelisk inspired by the Washington Monument amid two traditionally inspired Obama Center buildings would do a far better job than any modernist design at fitting the Obama phenomenon into the American historical trajectory:
The entire Obama Presidential Center ensemble would thereby link the Obama presidency simultaneously to both the ideals and the flaws of the American founding, to the history of African American emancipation and to the biblical foundation of the mid-1960s civil-rights movement’s opposition to the Jim Crow regime of legal segregation.
Bess raises the obligatory doubt that traditional architecture would be an appropriate environment for such a commemorative task. Bess addresses that doubt with a parallel doubt that crony capitalism’s modernist veneer is any more appropriate. Naturally, the proposal has been criticized by the design elite in Chicago (including Tribune critic Blair Kamin), which is itself a good reason to embrace it.
Chicago and Barack Obama should give this “academic exercise” (which Kamin wishes it would remain) a closer look.