Presidential libraries often reflect their namesakes’ personalities and narratives. Squint, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston resembles a launch pad. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta is deferential and understated, like the man it honors. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, looks as much like a movie set as a ranch—fitting, given that Reagan came to politics by way of Hollywood.
The Obama Presidential Center continues this tradition. The three-building complex, in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side, clearly reflects Barack Obama’s proclivities and priorities as the nation’s 44th president.
The design, by the New York firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, looks more like a park than a library of the sort associated with, say, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush. Each of those buildings looks like something you’d see on a college campus, in no small part because, at least with regard to the Bush libraries, they are.
Obama, on the other hand, chose a lush site alongside Lake Michigan. The center’s largest building, the lozenge-shaped presidential museum, stands as its emphatic focal point, easily seen from throughout the South Side. The monolithic monument, which could stand as tall as 180 feet once built, features staggered, light-hued stone cladding and brings to mind an ancient ziggurat, which some might consider a testament to Obama’s well-documented ego.
Yet the rest of the complex does something quite different: It defers to its surroundings and weaves them into its design, reflecting Barack and Michelle Obama’s commitment, both in office and now as private citizens, to building consensus and community. In this way, the Obama Presidential Center completely rethinks the idea of the object-centered presidential library.
To the south of the museum lies a broad plaza, a single-story library, and a forum that will host events and classes. Underground hallways link the three buildings—which will cover 200,000 to 225,000 square feet—in a clever trick to maximize the open space. The library and forum feature planted rooftop terraces and broad walkways meant to incorporate the center into Jackson Park, a 500-acre public space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Openings at the plaza’s corners encourage people to meander through, and amenities like a circular lawn, a sledding hill, an athletic center, and a children’s play area underscore the Obamas’ goal of making the center a destination for students as well as scholars.
Obama made that very point while unveiling the conceptual design Wednesday. The goal of the campus, he said,, is to “train the next generation of leadership” so “they can take up the torch and lead the process of change in the future.”
Other aspects of the center speak to the former president’s ideals and legacy. Its proximity to transit, parklike setting, and promise of eco-friendly construction nod toward his environmentalism. His plan to invite artists like Chance the Rapper and Spike Lee to teach kids about the arts reflect his love of music, film, and children. His desire for a center that “looked forward, not backward” echoes the entire point of his presidency. And, of course, there’s the fact he actually used the word “hope” in describing it all.
Such grandiose goals point to another element of Obama’s legacy, says Laura A. Belmonte, a historian at Oklahoma State University: his tendency to promise more than he could deliver. “This is the concrete manifestation of the hope and change ethos he talked about,” she says. “It’s capturing that sort of soaring, rhetorical aims that he was good at articulating, but less effective at pulling off.”
You can argue that Obama’s ineffectiveness stemmed in no small part from an intransigent congress. But Belmonte raises another concern: the Obama center will be the first fully digitized presidential library. You won’t find much in the way of paper files, only electronic ones. The physical documents will remain in the National Archives, at a location to be determined. Belmonte says that highlights an irony of the Obama administration: Even as the 44th president claimed to favor transparency, he didn’t always practice it.
“These plans show the contradictions of the Obama presidency itself,” she says. “He sees himself as this transformational figure, and this as a transformational building. But he may be forgetting the core function of a presidential library, which is to house the documentation of a president. “
Just another way the Obama Presidential Center, slated to open in 2021, will be unlike any of the nation’s 13 other presidential libraries.