Eight months after former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama revealed their vision for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park, on the south side of Chicago, the Obama Foundation has released more detailed plans and designs, which they say are the result of thousands of comments. The new plans are perhaps also a response to criticism that the Presidential Center “confiscates” some 19 acres of the historic, Olmsted-designed 543-acre Jackson Park, and, therefore, a parking structure planned for the nearby Midway Plaisance would further undermine the park’s integrity. The Obama Foundation has since scrapped plans for the parking structure in favor of adding parking underneath the Center.
Amid new calls by park advocates and a faculty group at the University of Chicago to move the Presidential Center out of Jackson Park, the design team — which is led by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and includes Interactive Design Architects (IDEA), Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), Site Design Group, and Living Habitats — continues to move through the process, honing the plans and designs, with the goal of building the $500-million project by 2021.
Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, lead landscape architect on the project, told us criticism that the Obama Presidential Center destroys the landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. is incorrect. “There is a complete failure to recognize the history of the 19 acres in question, particularly with respect to Olmsted and Vaux. The Jackson Park — as designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Calvert Vaux — was never actually fully realized. Then, the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition came in, and Jackson Park was nearly destroyed. The design evolved with guidance from Olmsted Sr., but not Vaux. One of Olmsted’s successor firms, headed up by his sons, created a revised plan for the park in 1895, the same year FLO Sr. retired from practice. Olmsted Sr. kept the lagoons intact as did the sons in the 1895 plan. Many of FLO Sr’s big ideas persist in that version of Jackson Park, but given the history, you have to be misguided to argue the landscape between Cornell Drive and Stony Island Avenue is in any way an intact Olmsted Sr. landscape. Or that its current configuration and character is fundamental to our ability to appreciate Olmsted Sr’s. vision for a very large, very watery park.”
Furthermore, Van Valkenburgh argued, the Obama Foundation’s plans will yield usable new landscape. “With the new Presidential Center, we will remove the 6-lane Cornell Drive, which, today, horrendously cuts off part of the park where the OPC is proposed, leaving it as an isolated triangle. The removal of Cornell Drive is a major restoration of the 1895 plan— and makes connections through Jackson Park towards the adjacent Lagoon and on to Lake Michigan. Also, the OPC will create accessible new park land, as part of the MVVA site strategy that embeds two of the new buildings entirely under new landscape on the east and south sides towards Jackson Park.” The design team contends there will be a net-gain in park land.
Van Valkenburgh believes the landscape design realizes the goals of the Obamas: to make the Center as green and open as possible, so the entire experience feels like an urban public park. “Again, the organizing idea was to cluster the three Center buildings and embed two of them in park land, so we can keep the amount of paved surfaces to under a couple of acres.”
The Obama Foundation and the design team want to create a new woodland walk, sledding hill, playground, athletic center, lawns, and community vegetable garden for school kids to grow and eat fresh produce. The garden helps continue “Mrs. Obama’s mission of food and wellness.” These new features are set within a landscape designed to sustainably manage water.
“The Obamas were married in the park. And they lived a few blocks away from it for years. They are committed to opening up the Center into the civic and public realm.”
For more perspective, read the take of Blair Kamin, The Chicago Tribune‘s architecture critic, who largely supports the approach of the design team, but calls for the designs to further evolve, that of Jackson Park Watch, which calls for slower and more comprehensive planning with deeper community involvement, and that of Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), who calls for moving the Center out of the park (and also disagrees with Kamin). Lastly, read more on demands that the Obama Foundation sign a community benefits agreement, which they have so far refused to do.