Possibilities over Prescriptions
Pundits speculating about the design commission for the Obama library need to broaden their perspectives.
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The George W. Bush Presidential Center, in Dallas, designed by Robert A. M. Stern Architects
Courtesy Peter Aaron/otto archive
Rybczynski misrepresents the goals of the presidential libraries somewhat, perhaps due to his focus on the buildings alone. Presidential libraries are more than architecture. Their sites include public spaces and infrastructure, ranging up to 100 acres in Ronald Reagan’s case. In addition to the archive, there is also the museum component and office space for living presidents. Elements such as conference centers and educational components have been added over time. Presidential libraries should be understood as campuses, not just architectural objects, so the real question is one of urban design. Given President Obama’s reputation as an urban president for an urban world, the library should be developed as an urban campus, with a strong integration between buildings, landscape, and infrastructure.
Not simply monuments to men for which they are named, the presidential libraries were established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ensure that artifacts, information, and ideas associated with presidencies would be preserved for future generations. They are (ostensibly) built for us—the citizens of the United States, and people of the world in which we have come to exert such great influence. In this light, the Obama library could also be conceived as an expansive new space for its city, the nation, and the world. From the Washington National Mall to Rockefeller Center, great works of urbanism are often characterized by the landscape that lives between built forms. More than architectural objects often do, these great spaces remain pregnant with possibilities and potential for change.
The site for the project is already the most hotly contested issue. One common assumption is that, if built in Chicago, the Obama Library should be located somewhere on the South Side, in a predominantly African American neighborhood, and on a site that would benefit from the anticipated economic development. Directly in line with this thinking, architect Michael Sorkin used his October 2013 article in The Nation to insist on a very specific site in the Woodlawn neighborhood. Sorkin has also published an associated design proposal, the main distinguishing feature being that the library is shaped like an “O.”
Of course, it is true that President Obama conducted much of his activist work on the South Side of Chicago and still owns a house there. And it’s likely that the complex, troubling, and ongoing racial politics in Chicago will inevitably be a factor in the public debate over library sites. Nonetheless, presidential libraries are intended to last for the ages, which means long-range thinking about their physical and social contexts. In 100 years, Chicago may still be ethnically or economically segregated, but not necessarily in ways we can predict today. In choosing sites, we could be more open to a future that looks very different from our present—and especially from our past. Is anyone considering that Illinois is expected to have a climate similar to Texas in 100 years?
Rather than prescribing to President Obama where the library should be located, our efforts could again be directed toward expanding the possibilities for his consideration. There are several, if not many, sites around Chicago that could be fantastic locations for a presidential library. But the public discussion so far has been crowded with the voices of self-interested parties, too quickly concerned with dreams of economic investments and institutional prestige. Though it’s hard to disagree that the next presidential library should produce substantial benefits for the city it belongs to, we should also recall that most of the 13 existing presidential libraries have limited local impact outside their own boundaries. Much emphasis has been unsurprisingly given to economic development opportunities. But equal or even more consideration could also be given to infrastructural, cultural, and intellectual development projects as well. These investments are not only better bets, but also perhaps more in line with this particular president’s stated ideals. So rather than immediately settling on one site, we could first explore a diverse set of scenarios for the library’s location and composition. The result could be a new kind of institution, strategically independent, but also connected. “Out of many, we are one.” Those were President Obama’s words from Grant Park on November 4, 2008. On that night in Chicago, anything became possible in America. This next presidential library is a chance to test those possibilities once again.