Obama Center crisis solved

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Proposal by two grad students to transfer Obama Center to Midway Plaisance. (Notre Dame)

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.

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Proposal by Bille Tsien/Tod Williams for Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. (Obama Foundation)

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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3 Responses to Obama Center crisis solved

  1. LazyReader says:

    We’re all reminded of the Emperors new clothes where despite grotesque nudity, he is constantly befuddled by incompetent yes men. Under Obama, the Democratic Party suffered greatly. . . . Democrats lost more than one thousand seats in state legislatures, governors’ mansions, and Congress during his time in office.

    Chicago and Illinois are Obama center. There’s No better lasting monument to him as a failure in every aspect of his political career. Obama never figured out where wealth comes from, the contribution of freedom to its creation, the role of property rights in securing prosperity, much less how government controls and mandates hold back growth. Every time these ideas were brought up, he would dismiss them as Reagan-era fictions. Moreover, denouncing trickle-down economics always elicited cheers from all the fashionable people who’ve never trickled down any wealth except a 20 dollar bill to a junkie on rodeo drive.

    Chicago and Illinois are the lasting legacy of Obama whose political career matches his lengthy state oriented career. Chicago and Illinois are petri dishes of what propogates when Leftists are put in charge of Every single institution. Law enforcement, education, taxation, finance, infrastructure. Chicago is so broke that its bonds are junk status and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel had to go hat in hand to Springfield for bailout money to pay the bills. When a world class tier city has to have it’s leaders Beg for money to keep the lights running, you know it’s time for a change of leadership. If I were running for mayor of Chicago right now here’s my first words, I’d even let my opponent go first and say whatever he wants about me.

    “I’m not running because I’m here to give anyone stuff, I’m not running because I have the magic solutions in my pocket, I’m not running because I can fix the L trains or line the unions pocket or raise taxes. There is no more money. This country is teetering the edge of bankruptcy on Every level now…municipal, local, county, state, federal, we don’t have any money anymore, it’s GONE, down a financial black hole and it’s not coming back and the solution is not more borrowing. I’m running to give a cold slap of reality to the city and it’s residents that Chicagoans need to cease the belief that they’re entitled to whatever they think the government can provide; that in the long run was wishful thinking spouted to win votes, the financial obligations Chicago legally ingrained by it’s government cronies and sold to the public as “rights” and “fairness” will not and cannot be financially sustained. Blaming the rich is a strawman argument made by politicians who angrily blame the rich for everything they cant accomplish but lament and mourn when they leave. The only way to save Chicago is bloodletting, by slashing enormous service costs and begin privatizing whole city services with one year contracts to prevent tampering or funds misuse; Cultivating massive volunteer organizations to keep the city safe, because police, fire and emergency services will undoubtedly be cut if the current tax revenue is to pay off the city’s debts. “


  2. barry says:

    while I think Obama was a relatively very good President, my opinion of him will go down if he is OK with that Tsien/Williams design that is unusually ugly, even for modern architecture. What Presidential library looks the best? Maybe the answer can unite Republicans and Democrats who need some uniting


  3. Steve says:

    Far too grandiose…in fact grotesque to me. You would think it was for a great President, like Lyndon Baines Johnson.

    Love reading your posts, David.


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