A Closer Look at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago

A Closer Look at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago

The Obama Foundation has released new renders of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, a Chicago campus designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Interactive Design Architects.

Barack Obama once dreamed of becoming an architect. While those plans never came to fruition, the former U.S. president hopes to transform Chicago’s cityscape with the Barack Obama Presidential Center, a proposed campus in Jackson Park in the city’s South Side. Last May, he announced the Obama Foundation had partnered with Tod Williams Billie Tsien of New York, and Chicago’s own Interactive Design Architects to plan the project. Eight months on, Obama has released new renders and is now actively soliciting public feedback.

Obama Presidential Center campus

The goal of the centre, says the Obama Foundation, is to reenergize the South Side. The site will connect residents to a lagoon and nearby Lake Michigan, all the while infusing an estimated US$3.1billion into the local economy. In a newly released video, Obama calls it a “living, working campus” that will become “a place for all seasons, with winding landscapes, a sledding hill and quiet spaces to read or reflect.”

The campus will spread between 18,600 and 20,900 square metres.

The Obama Presidential Center's museum tower

The proposal’s most striking feature is a four-sided tower (above) that will house a museum. Its lower levels promise exhibitions about civil rights, Black American history and the Obamas themselves. The 55-metre tower will be topped off with an observatory overlooking Jackson Park, with expansive views of the nearby bodies of water. Its facade will feature stone letters, though the Obama Foundation hasn’t yet revealed their contents.

The tower represents “ascension, hope and what ordinary people have the power to do together,” Obama said.

The Obama Presidential Center's museum tower observatory

Trails and bike paths will connect the museum to other elements of the campus. Along with the tower, the site will contain two other buildings: A two-storey forum – one level will be below grade, reducing its visual impact – with a restaurant, meetings spaces and an auditorium, and a library that will “play a real role in building our collective future.” True to those words, the library promises to be strictly digital, with no paper records onsite.

The Obama Presidential Center campus

A plaza, featuring an athletic centre, outdoor performance spaces and play zones, will serve as a public square. The Obama Foundation suggests that partnerships with local institutions, such as the South Side YMCA, the Chicago Park District Field House and the Chicago Public Library, can bring community-focussed programming to different parts of the campus.

The Obama Presidential Center plaza

In its current state, the proposal isn’t without its critics. More than 100 University of Chicago professors have signed an open letter in opposition to the development. Some voiced concerns over handing over a public site to private entities; others argued that the project won’t bring the economic benefits it touts, noting that it leaves no adjacent land open for new businesses; others called a proposed 450-car parking lot “socially regressive.” Read the letter here.

Here’s a glimpse of the campus in its current state. It has an expected completion date of 2021.

The Obama Presidential Center plaza site map

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