The Obama Presidential Center Makes Design Changes After Criticism

Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are iterating on their design for the center after the community raised a slew of concerns over the plan.

The design process for the Obama Presidential Center is well underway, and, as with any design process, the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are iterating on their initial vision–mostly in response to some of the criticisms of the first design.


Somewhat unconventionally, this week the Obama Foundation–the nonprofit tasked with building and operating the library–circulated a list of 11 criticisms and concerns from the community, along with a list of the explicit design changes the architects and foundation itself are making to address them. For instance, the initial plans included a massive blocky building that critics complained would have a large footprint on Jackson Park, located on the South Side of Chicago. Now, it’s been updated to be a much taller, thinner mass, with more windows and a 100-foot-tall glass segment facing the north. To represent the importance of words in Obama’s presidency, the tower’s facade will include screens made of stone letters (though what they’ll spell out is still TBD).

[Image: courtesy Obama Presidential Center]
Meanwhile, the proposed parking lot will now be moved underground in response to community groups–and possibly in response to a scathing letter written by faculty at the nearby University of Chicago, where more than 100 faculty members are opposed to the library’s impact on the historic park. The garage will now be covered by parkland, so as not to interrupt the flow of Jackson Park. The professors’ grievances include the closing of a major thoroughfare in the area to create the library’s grounds. That closure, which isn’t addressed in the new design, will mean more traffic in the neighborhood and will require the use of taxpayer dollars to widen other streets to lessen the effects of congestion.

Other more subtle changes include adding more trees, distributing play areas for children throughout the site, and including more landscaped paths. The Obama Foundation is also looking into a partnership with the Chicago Public Library.

On Wednesday, the foundation announced that it’s submitting these new plans to the Chicago Plan Commission for approval. To finish the project by 2021, the foundation hopes to break ground in the spring. In a video posted by the foundation, President Obama acknowledged the value of the design process–and the importance of getting feedback from the community before unilaterally building such a big project. “From community meetings to online surveys, we’ve heard from literally thousands of people about their hopes for the Center, what they’d like to see improved or changed, and how we can best serve our neighbors in Chicago,” he says. “This input has shaped the design, it’s challenged us, and it’s made our design better.”

About the author

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