Possibilities over Prescriptions
Pundits speculating about the design commission for the Obama library need to broaden their perspectives.
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Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Bush
Courtesy Paul Morse
The official process to build the Barack Obama Presidential Library has finally been launched. After years of gossip and rumors about architects and sites, this could be the moment for some intelligent and informed debate among the design community. Unfortunately, the conversation so far has been dominated by narrow prescriptions about what the library should be, who should design it, and where it should be located, as opposed to broader speculation about what it could be. So I propose that, rather than making prescriptions to the president based on a narrow set of perceived realities, we can help him by expanding the conversation and laying out a broader set of possibilities.
This will be the 14th official presidential library under the jurisdiction of the National Archives. If it’s built in Chicago, then the design standards for the Obama library will be set extremely high, given our city’s status as a world capital of modern architecture. (Full disclosure: I live and practice in Chicago.) Without exaggeration, the library could be one of the most important American building projects in the decades to come. On the other hand, the potential for disappointment is also real, given the anticipation already in the air. Of the 13 existing presidential libraries, most are unremarkable in terms of either design or urban impact. The Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, is one of the few exceptions. The campus, designed by Polshek Partnership and Hargreaves Associates, formed a new connection between downtown and North Little Rock, and is credited with catalyzing substantial development in the area. The other presidential libraries, however, are in locations either too remote or too sequestered to be much more than storehouses and monuments. So, Chicago represents an unprecedented opportunity to break the pattern of what the historian Benjamin Hufbauer has called “Presidential Temples,” and set a new standard.
The Clinton Presidential Center, in Little Rock, Arkansas, designed by Polshek Partnership and Hargreaves Associates
Courtesy Timothy Hursley
Before looking at the project itself, let’s first address some gossip about the commission. The Tanzanian-born, British architect David Adjaye has been mentioned as the “front runner” for the Obama library on several occasions over the past few years. The most conspicuous case was Fred A. Bernstein’s March 2013 article in Architectural Record, which lacked any real substantiation and was publicly refuted by Adjaye himself. Robert A. M. Stern (designer of the George W. Bush Presidential Center), Witold Rybczynski (member of the George W. Bush Presidential Library design committee), and others have also been spreading the same seemingly benign rumor. No disrespect goes to Mr. Adjaye, who is arguably the most notable architect of African descent on the current global scene, but the implications stemming from these rumors are more than a little disturbing. The most obviously questionable implication is that President Obama should or must choose a black architect for the library. (Full disclosure: I’m black.) But even worse, perhaps, is the implication that follows on from the first: Without exception, the other presidential library commissions have all been given to American architects. Therefore, those who suggest that the president should choose a foreign-born architect of African descent are actually implying that there is not a single African American architect who is qualified, or even deserving to be considered, for the job. To be clear, none of the aforementioned individuals have openly made such statements, but their eagerness to grant the commission to Adjaye leads very quickly to such conclusions.
The George Bush Presidential Library, in College Station, Texas, designed by HOK.
Courtesy Erhard Pfeiffer
Nonetheless, the commission is an interesting issue for debate. Rather than narrowing the president’s choices based on race, what if the field of candidates could be expanded? How appropriate would it be for one of our youngest presidents to consider some youthful, lesser-known, yet extremely talented designers for the library? If President Obama began leading the country at 47, then certainly there are designers of similar age, or even younger, who could deliver a great project. Like Obama’s rapid rise to leadership, this could be a rare opportunity to usher some new (and perhaps also more diverse) faces onto the national architectural stage. I. M. Pei, for example, was also only 47 years old when first selected to design one of his first major projects: the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
If it were left up to some, there might be no Obama library at all. Rybczynski encouraged President Obama to “go small” or perhaps forgo a library altogether in an opinion piece for the New York Times. While his critique of the increasingly monumental scale of the libraries is understandable, Rybczynski’s suggestion that our first African American president would not have a library is both politically suspect and terribly implausible. The federal law mandating the libraries’ construction has specific requirements for their relative capacities, and the magnitude of these facilities has been expanding rapidly in the digital era. And if the Obama library is well sited in Chicago, the third-largest city in the United States, it could break attendance records for the presidential libraries by several magnitudes, thus also requiring a larger scale.