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.”  

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.

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.

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May 6, 2014 03:21 pm
 Posted by  user1

Marshall Brown associates me with views I have never espoused. Last year, I reported for Architectural Record that David Adjaye was seen as the front-runner to design Barack Obama’s presidential library. Factors included Adjaye’s friendship with Obama -- the architect was seated at the president’s small table at a state dinner -- and the fact that Adjaye has made a specialty of designing libraries, including two close to the White House. I do not endorse the choice of Adjaye or any other architect, or believe that the president should choose an architect of any particular race or ethnicity. I am, however, on record as saying that the profession would benefit from greater diversity.

Fred Bernstein

May 7, 2014 03:47 pm
 Posted by  will regrets

What is the point of an article of this nature?
Architecture has always been and always will be a game played by conservatives. The short sightedness of Marshall Brown is painfully evident in his tiny argument for the Obama Presidential Library to act as a new opportunity for young architectural design talent. This is obvious because Marshall Brown thinks that Obama is a new type of American president, and therefore will result in new type of presidential library. Obama is identical to all other American presidents based on gender. Not once does Marshall Brown suggest that because Chicago is the likely site for the Obama library that a female architect should be chosen for the project. Jeanne Gang and her Chicago based practice Studio Gang would be an alternative choice for this presidential library. Jeanne Gang is an Illinois native and the architect of the Aqua Tower in Chicago, the tallest building in the world by a female architect.
To project forward beyond the Obama presidential library and the small voice of a Chicago school architecture professor, the point of this article could have drawn parallels between the much needed gender equality in architecture and the politics of the United States acting as a new precedent for architects & citizens alike. Until a female is president of the United States an article of this type is totally irrelevant, except to its author.

(By the way, a female architect has never been considered to design a U.S. Presidential Library. )

will regrets.

May 7, 2014 06:16 pm
 Posted by  gray85

So true Fred, how many black women architects are available? A sorry state of affairs for a profession floundering to find significance.

Jul 1, 2014 11:33 am
 Posted by  tierneytoo

Previous comments have missed the central point of the essay, one in which the traditional hermetic monument is contrasted with a more extensive urban intervention. I found the conclusion particularly inspiring because it sets up the possibility for a reconceptualization of Chicago as a field condition – merging landscape and urbanism, object and process. If as Stan Allen argued, a field condition marks a move away from traditional concepts of architectural form and toward a consideration of systems and networks, then the presidential archive could be distributed throughout the city as an array of points accumulating into a connective system. By dismantling and reframing program, unlike an isolated monument, a distributed archive could become a dynamic, flexible armature with catalytic possibilities.

The process of enabling fields and/or frameworks might reveal formations, such as determining points or nodes of the system – which to me, is one of the more interesting discussions concerning the Presidential Library. An obvious choice would be to distribute the archive among already existing knowledge sites in Chicago – the colleges and universities. But would that not merely reinforce already inequalities? Should not our goal be to connect the city and to dissolve barriers? Perhaps there are more subtle histories or aspects that could tell another story about human self-determination. Where are the structures and places in Chicago that furthered human dignity? How could we connect them towards a greater understanding? And as Marshall Brown emphasized – the connectors could lead to new ways of activating the spaces in between, socially and experientially.

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