Sweet: Obama Center design is splashy with welcoming streetscape

SHARE Sweet: Obama Center design is splashy with welcoming streetscape

It was announced last week that the Obama Presidential Center, seen here in a conceptual drawing, will include a branch of the Chicago Public Library. | Obama Foundation via AP

Over time, the South Side neighborhood and park now named for the seventh president of the U.S., Andrew Jackson, will become better known as Obamaland, anchored by the Obama Presidential Center campus, conceived by the 44th president as a busy hub with space for people to gather, whether from across the globe or around the corner.

Former President Barack Obama unveiled the conceptual plans of his Obama Center at a Wednesday afternoon event engineered to address local concerns that have been long brewing, from planting his center in a historic Frederick Law Olmsted park, to guarantees that jobs and contracts from the project will flow to minorities, to what he will do about crime.

“We are going to be continually in conversations with the community about how we are going to be able to make this work for you,” Obama said at the start of his almost one-hour briefing about the project at the South Shore Cultural Center.

Obama lugged around a five-by-five model of his Obama Center campus on his day trip back to his adopted hometown, first to South Shore for the public event and then downtown to a private dinner hosted by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, where he showed off the design to an audience of potential donors.


We finally know what Obama and former first lady Michelle have in mind for the design of their Center, the first urban presidential compound.

Think of it as an architecturally significant clubhouse complex, where people can hang out, inside or outside, maybe sample a program — or maybe not.

The siting of the campus along Stony Island Avenue is crucial, creating a non-imposing accessible streetscape with many points of entry for people, whether to wander by or come with a purpose.

There will be three main structures in the Obama Center: a brawny high-rise to be the iconic landmark “lantern,” housing a museum and offices, and likely an apartment for the Obamas; a multi-use forum for performances and meetings, and a library.

Above ground, the structures will be woven together with plazas and paths leading people to and from the nearby Museum of Science and Industry, one of Chicago’s leading tourist attractions.

The skins of the structures are to be of stone and glass, but the specific stone or its hew has not yet been revealed.

The boxy museum building looks somewhat like an Apple power adapter, with the glass running down the south face the prongs.

The buildings reflect the Obamas.

Splashy. Tasteful. Sleek. Modern. And certainly not a display of the architect’s vanity.

It is architecture that relates to the adventurous buildings spawned in the last decade on the University of Chicago campus to the west.

The chief architects are the New York husband and wife team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, whose chemistry with the Obamas was a significant factor in their selection last year.

But on Wednesday, at the first event where Obama discussed his legacy project with the community, he was on stage with Obama Foundation Vice President for Civic Engagement Michael Strautmanis and the local architect on the design team, Dina Griffin, a Hyde Park resident.

Architect Dina Griffin listens to former President Barack Obama speak about the progress of the Obama Presidential Center during a community event at the South Shore Cultural Center on Wednesday, May 3, 2017, in Chicago. | Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

Architect Dina Griffin listens to former President Barack Obama speak about the progress of the Obama Presidential Center during a community event at the South Shore Cultural Center on Wednesday, May 3, 2017, in Chicago. | Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

Also on Wednesday, the Obama Foundation and the National Archives and Records Administration announced a deal — the first of its kind — in which the Foundation will fund the digitization of Obama’s unclassified records. NARA will retain custody of the original paper records, to be stored at another location. Classified records will remain in the Washington, D.C. area.

Obama announced at the South Shore event that the former first couple will donate $2 million to Chicago summer jobs programs. The timing is interesting. That news comes as Obama has been criticized — including by consumer champion Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — for raking in $400,000 speaking fees on top of a reported $60 million book deal for memoirs the Obamas’ will each write.

The Obama donation will go to two organizations: $1 million to the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance, a program of the Chicago Community Trust, and $1 million to One Summer Chicago 2017, a program run in part out of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall.

Obama confirmed something that everyone long suspected: Despite a bidding competition, the presidential thumb was on the scale from the start for the University of Chicago’s push for a South Side location.

“Although we had a formal bidding process to determine where the presidential library was going to be, the fact of the matter was it had to be right here on the South Side of Chicago,” Obama said.

In a part of the city that one day will be called Obamaland.

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