Close window  |  View original article

The Big O Library

Obama's presidential library is as self-important as he was.

By Thomas Anderson  |  March 3, 2019

The biggest event of the past few social seasons in Chicago has to have been the announcement of the Barack Obama presidential center. This project, which will be located in Chicago near the lakefront within Jackson Park next to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, will be the hub of the development, and will contain the library and a tower housing memorabilia of the glory days of the Obama regime.

Ex-president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle have been working on this complex of buildings for many years, having chosen the site before he left office in 2017.  As has been true of presidential libraries for decades, the campus housing the library and museum will also be home to a park and visitor center providing a background for the complex.

However, dark circumstances surrounded the announcement Tuesday of the status of the city's approval of the project. The site for the buildings described in the drawings that Mr. Obama's architect submitted to the municipal board for review is proposed to be located on Jackson Park, a tract of land now home to a development designed in the late 19th century by the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.  Mr. Olmsted's work is a part of the complex of the Museum of Science and Industry developed for Chicago's world's fair in 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition or "White City".

It seems that Mr. Obama's legacy library may not be entitled to use the land as his current architects have designed it. The Museum of Science and Industry and the work of the historic landscape architect are protected by municipal ordinances, zoning, and other protections set up to prevent just this type of usurpation by projects of later developers.

Also, presidential libraries are supposed to be handled by a particular group within the National Park Service. Instead, Mr. Obama's library would be managed by a private entity; whether foundation or other organization, no other president's library is private.

This writer has not been on this particular site since the late 1980s, but the remembrance is of a pleasant downtown space on the lakefront near Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears and the scene of many professional and amateur athletic contests. It is not far from the giant Exposition Center and other tourist attractions in Chicago's downtown.

In a nutshell, the site is a prominent one in one of the premier locations of the downtown lakefront, near several other downtown landmarks, all of them of importance to the character of the city of Chicago.

Mr. Obama has ties to a few places.  The city of Chicago was Mr. Obama's reputed home when he was an Illinois senator.  The city of Washington DC, where his current house is located, is assumed to be his current home.  The city of Honolulu, where he graduated from high school, was his home growing up. Any one of these locations would have been a logical choice for the library, but the city of Chicago was the choice of his current plan.

In accordange with the usual Chicago style, the whole cast of characters would have fallen into line, the stage would have been set, and this little production would have proceeded as the Obamas had intended. But that was not to be: according to Fox News:

Protect Our Parks [an independent civic group] has accused the city of illegally transferring parkland to the private Obama Foundation, effectively "gifting" prized land to a Chicago favorite son. The group said city officials manipulated the approval process and tinkered with legislation to skirt longstanding laws designed to ensure residents have unobstructed access to lakeside parks.

Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way ... to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab," the lawsuit says.

To make the park available for the project, the Chicago Park District first sold the land to the city for $1. Illinois legislators amended the state's Illinois Aquarium and Museum Act to include presidential libraries as an exception to the no-development rules if there's a compelling public interest. The Chicago City Council approved the project by a 47-to-1 vote last May.

"...They are essentially giving property to Obama ... for 10 cents a year for 99 years," parks advocacy lawyer Mark Roth said Thursday.

Obama, Still the Agent of Change

Chicago is well known for its rich architecture heritage. The first works of modern architecture in the United States - our first uses of steel structure versus cast-iron, for instance - were in Chicago in the late 19th century. Architects Burnham and Root, William Jenney, and the masterful Louis Sullivan were among the originators of truly American and distinctly modern architecture. Downtown Chicago is a delight for any architect's eyes.

Into this arena the new 'library' of Mr. Barack Obama will intrude, crushing the delicate plants Mr. Olmstead so carefully placed for their ornamental continuity with the land.

The ham-handed design of the multistory library (235 feet in height, according to the New York Times article cited above) makes the museum portion of the library appear to be almost an afterthought, and the colors selected are obviously ones to make that portion of the structure try to disappear.

It's also telling that the colored renderings of the project depict the visitors to the public facility as all shades of brown, with only a couple of female whites to break up the monochrome crowd, as can be seen in the photos below.  There's nothing wrong with inclusion, so why wouldn't the renderings be appropriately diverse and representative of America's actual mix?  Perhaps they're accurately depicting the expected patrons, but if so, in any other context this would be considered an act of racism unworthy of the tourist center of any modern American city.

Setting aside issues of political correctness, this particular location is a place of classical urban beauty.  Mr. Obama's postmodern tribute to himself should be located on a site which does not cause a rift in the urban bedrock of Chicago's lakefront.

Pleasing everyone with this type of building is an absolute impossibility, but with this design, Mr. Obama can be assured that he is pleasing no one except the Chicago construction unions.

The Project

Oddly shaped and relating to nothing in its surroundings, the Obama Museum in this drawing rises abruptly from the shore of Lake Michigan . The Museum of Science and Industry is in the background. The surrounding trees, many of which have been removed, is Jackson Park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted for the 1893 World's Fair, supposedly protected by Chicago municipal codes and laws.

Development site plan - the relationship to Lake Michigan is omitted.

A form model showing Lake Michigan and the devastation which was proposed to the Olmsted landscape.

Delineators (people who render architect's designs) know how to disguise an awful looking building by using site features to occupy the frame of a rendering, leaving the building to recede into the frame. The excuse for this was probably to include the Museum of Science and Industry in the view. Eliminating much of the foreground plants, etc., would have yielded a closer view of the building from the same angle, which would have shown that relationship while allowing more detail of the subject project to be shown.

Presidential libraries are usually rather ordinary buildings whose purpose is to house the memorabilia of the president without taking away from the character of those relics. They are mostly located on sites which meant most to the president, with gardens and landscape features to enhance the visitors experience. Barack Obama's library will be an exception to all the previous precedents.

And it will include a little bit of Chicago-style strong-arm and intimidation. Maybe it really is entirely appropriate after all!