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A First Look At The Design For The Obama Presidential Center

The concept, by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects, includes a museum, library, and forum.

Barack and Michelle Obama have released the long-awaited design concept for the new Obama Presidential Center, located in Jackson Park in the couple’s native Chicago. Designed by the New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the concept shows a large public plaza, flanked by a museum, library, and forum to create a spacious campus and park that’s open to the public.

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As the tallest structure, the museum, which will house exhibition space, meeting rooms, and classrooms, will likely become the Center’s main architectural landmark. From the renderings, it appears to have an angular facade clad in light-colored stone. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are known for their facades, particularly in the case of the Folk Art Museum in New York, which is currently being dismantled to make way for a controversial expansion for the Museum of Modern Art.

The library, which will house artifacts from Obama’s time as president, and the forum, which includes an auditorium, restaurant, and garden, have a deliberately low profile, with each building’s roof intertwined with the rest of the park’s green space–a decision meant to echo the surrounding landscape of Jackson Park. The park was designed in 1883 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The Obama Presidential Center will be certified at a minimum LEED v4 Platinum.

According to The Chicago Tribune, the design appears to require the closing of Cornell Drive, a major street used daily by thousands of drivers that runs through the park. While the Center remains open to the public, critics worry that it–along with a wave of new development–will make the park less accessible to its surrounding neighborhoods, some of which are low-income. The Center is estimated to cost at least $500 million.

The President discussed the plan at a community event this afternoon, where Obama answered many of the concerns about the center, particularly regarding the closing of Cornell Drive, which currently runs through the park. He said that traffic studies showed that closing the street wouldn’t impact commute times, but that bringing the two sides of the park together would make it more family friendly and accessible–like Chicago’s Millennium Park and Lincoln Park, located on the north side of the city. “It’s not just a building,” Obama said. “We are looking at transforming Jackson Park so that it once again becomes a people’s park.”

Throughout the conversation, Obama made clear that he and Michelle aren’t outsiders, with references to tacos, grilling, and Chance the Rapper, and reminiscences about his first apartment and their first home together. “This isn’t a formal interview, everybody, because I’m home!” he exclaimed at the beginning of the meeting. He made his point: the Obamas appear to be deeply invested in making the center serve their community both economically and functionally–and they incorporated that into the design. One example? “Michelle always told me she was mad that during the winter she couldn’t sled because there was no hill down here,” Obama said. So the Obama Presidential Center’s design has a hill built in–perfect for sledding.

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Obama also said that this is only the initial concept, one that’s not fixed, and he’s looking for community input to improve it. And since the complex will take about four years to build, he and the former First Lady will begin programming now, including donating $2 million to a summer jobs program aimed at young people.

Time will tell if the Obama Presidential Center will live up to the President’s vision, but as Obama talked about giving a plot in the Center’s community garden to 30 different schools throughout the city, and casually mentioned that he and Michelle would come hang out with the kids–but he’d let them do the planting–it was hard to imagine Obama’s vision going amiss. After all, running a community center probably isn’t so different from running a country.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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