Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Presidents and Their Monuments: The Barack Obama Library spurs both a Design Competition and a Battle over Chicago's Parks

Barack Presidential Library Commission
entry from Aras Burak Sen (click images for larger view)
When it comes to civic buildings, how do you define the relationship between architecture and power? Imposing scale conveys might, to be sure, but heavy classicism, to cite another frequently deployed design stratagem - does it express majesty or empire?  Dignity or a bulwark against dissent?

Next month, the announcement will be made as to where the Barack Obama Library and Museum will be located.  Whether the still unnamed architect for the project engages any of the above questions remains to be seen, but a new - and unauthorized - design competition for the library, co-sponsored by the Chicago Architectural Club and Chicago Architecture Foundation, brings more consideration and imagination to the core issues of what a Presidential library should express than the officially designated architect will probably ever be allowed to consider.

U.S. Presidential libraries have become America's pyramids.  From the $375,000 FDR raised for the first one back in the 1940's, to the nearly quarter billion dollars spent on the Robert Stern-designed 200,000 square-foot George W. Bush Presidential Center just outside Dallas, they've gone from being centers of scholarship to full-up pharaonic monuments.
George W. Bush Presidential Center, photograph J.P Fagerback Wikipedia commons
The bidding and selection process for the site for the library that will archive the achievements of Barack Obama has become a study in the arrogance of power, with the Obama Foundation, the University of Chicago, and the Emanuel administration seeming to be in their own competition to see who can be the least transparent and most contemptuous of the general public. (Not that there's anything new to this, as a recent recent Chicago Tribune story by Dahleen Glanton on the contentious history of presidential libraries has ably documented.)

Earlier this month, the Chicago Park District unanimously rubber-stamped Mayor Emanuel's deal with the University of Chicago to appropriate 20+ acre slices of either Washington or Jackson Park for an Obama Library site.  After the Metropolitan Planning Council demanded that any lost parkland be replaced with new acreage, the Emanuel administration originally promised it would, but in Rahm's patented middle-finger style, this quickly devolved into the mayor declaring that the 21-acre giveaway had already been replenished by the 750 acres of new open space he claims to have added during his time in office.  So I guess we should be prepared for the loss of any of other 729 acres whenever he feels like dealing them away to favored private interests. (The current line is that only the five acres built upon will actually be replaced. Emanuel neglected to mention that Chicago's 182 square feet of park land per resident is the lowest among all major U.S. cities, less even than New York and little more than a quarter of that in Milwaukee)

The proposal has been vociferously  opposed by advocates such as Friends of the Parks, even as public meetings seem to indicate a clear majority of the residents around the sites support the deal.  Friend of Parks requested a personal audience with President Obama when he visited Chicago last week so they could deliver in person notice of their intention to sue him if things don't go their way.
proposed Jackson Park site
The proposed Jackson Park site is the most conventional, a large rectangle of land currently taken up mostly by a soccer field surrounding by a running track.  Olmsted left this section of the park long ago.
proposed Washington Park site
In contrast the Washington Park site is a extended triangle beginning at 55th/Garfield and Cottage Grove, with its eastern boundary meandering west as it moves north, coming to a point at 51st.
To compensate, the Washington Park proposal includes adding to the site by acquiring properties along Cottage Grove to the Green Line station to the west.

Unauthorized Thoughts on what Presidential Libraries Should Be
from left: Chicago Architecture Foundation Lynn Osmond,
Chicago Architectural Club co-presidents
Martin Kläschen and Carl Ray Miller
None of the debate over the museum site has even touched on the quality of the architecture, and so the Chicago Architectural Club made the Barack Obama Presidential Library the subject of this year's version of it's biennial Chicago Prize design competition.  Earlier this month, teaming up with the Chicago Architectural Foundation, the CAC announced and unveiled the boards for the competition winners at the opening of the CAF exhibition, Presidential Libraries: Designing a Legacy.
The Drone Aviary, Ann Lui and Craig Reschke
While a persistent optimism marked the five displayed entries, beneath the surface you could also sense undercurrents of unease.  This was most overt in what was nicknamed the "dishonorable mention" winner, Ann Lui and Craig Reschke's The Drone Aviary . . .
The Drone Aviary doesn’t lock artifacts away—it collects and disburses them. President Obama’s legacy, the population and automation of the skies, would be the critical operation of his Presidential Library. The Obama Library drones both collect and distribute information. They can scan agricultural production, monitor the climate, and follow former presidents for live updates. Teachers can also borrow the pen used by Barack Obama to sign the healthcare bill by requesting that the library send it, via drone, to their classroom. Artifacts remain tucked into the Aviary wall until called upon for delivery. At street level a sculpted landscape serves as a neighborhood park for visitors who watch the drones in the tower above.
"I think it's a provocation," said Chicago Architectural Club co-president Carl Ray Miller.  "It has a double edge that cuts both ways.  While it's very optimistic, there is dark, sinister part about this, about the world to come."

"We probably should say that the dishonorable mention is a positive," added the Chicago Architectural Club other co-president Martin Kläschen. "Distinguished and disturbing because of course drone technology also stands for big brother surveillance and maybe also war technology, and that's where it becomes disturbing." Kläschen said the the jury saw the dual qualities of the entry as a debate on the president.

Juror Andrew Metter noted the Drone Aviary spoke to basic questions about the way we store knowledge in a high-tech world.  "Humans are essential to absorbing the knowledge or disseminating the knowledge." In the Drone Aviary, however . . .
The tower has few inhabitants.  Drones move about making necessary repairs to one another to one another and the building.  Artifacts remain tucked into the Aviary wall until they are called upon for delivery, future iterations of existing library automation services in places at sites like the University of Chicago.  Long dark banks of servers whir away between drone stations. A lone repairman wanders the tower executing the few tasks the drones cannot.
"What does it say of our future society?",  asked Metter.  "Having books talks about the tactile aspect of knowledge in the fact that somebody has to read them, so it definies human interaction, whereas the drone scheme implied maybe no interaction."  Is this paradise, dystopia, or an amalgam of both?  Just last week "Father of the Internet" Vinton Cerf warned of a "digital dark age" where, in the absence of hard copies such as photographs or books, the entire record of an era may be lost to history through a discontinuity of digital technologies.

Whatever their other merits, no other winning entry offered such a subversive sense of irony.
between SKY and GROUND, Dániel Palota
The second honorable mention, Dániel Palotai's between SKY and GROUND offered . . .
A wide and open public square combines the elements of the city context, connecting the river, the platform of the tracks and street level, situates new and existing buildings an exciting interaction. The gently rising terraced slope is a mixed combination of small intimate platforms, open air exhibition spaces, green surfaces, ramps and stairs, accessible from every direction. These set of various and well-defined levels embrace and include the ground floor of the library, and lead to the main and most exciting series of covered and open spaces on the first floor. Various ceiling height enhance the experience of the voids, ensuring intimacy and openness at the same time. Indoor exhibition and library rooms are situated on upper stories organized by the similar space typology.
Kläschen spoke of described the proposal as "a neutral building on the outside; on the inside we see a very well refined set of well developed spaces and spatial interaction . . . a building connected to an extraordinary urban landscape, an interface to the city."
click images for larger view
There were two striking aspects to the last honorable mention winner, Drew Cowdrey and Trey Kirk's A Mobile Archive.  Very much in the tradition of the methodology of Chicago architects like Jeanne Gang and John Ronan, this entry began with an exhaustive research of all twelve presidential libraries, tracking their size and cost, and what percentage of the space is actually devoted to storing documents.

Out of this, Cowdrey, an architect with SOM-NY, and Kirk, an architect now working with a firm in Tennessee, came up with a typology and a process.  The typology is strikingly Miesian glass cube, set on a wide plaza that is a staging area for the process - loading up museum contents onto larger trailers that fan out into Chicago's neighborhoods.  Once the trailers have left the loading docks, the plaza becomes a public square.
"What was noted by the jury," said Miller, "was that although the skin of the building is very familiar to Chicago, there was something very special about how this building interacted."  Added Kläschen, "What became the debate, a very interesting debate, especially with Stanley Tigerman being on the jury, is this facade.  It's such a statement, that refers to Mies's early modernist building and we were questioning whether this was a building that was supposed to become generic, and blend in to the landscape, or is this maybe a statement that refers to Mies."

Kirk claimed this was all a surprise to him. "We're fans like anyone else of Mies," he said, but what appears at first glance to be classic Miesian I-beams on the structure's facade are in actuality glass fins.  "We didn't intend it to be perceived as having mullions.  The fins are only six or eight inches."  The exterior is a dual-skin facade, with a 3-foot wide air cavity both for energy efficiency and to protect the contents of the library.

What was supposed to be a first, second and third prize was changed by the jury to two co-first prize winners, sharing the $3,000 in prize money contributed by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.  Considered together, they seem almost like complementary geometrics, Saturn and its rings.

First Prize Winners

Both of the first prize winners bridge the competition's museum site to the other other two shores of the juncture where the Chicago River splits into North and South branches,  the source of the city's "Corporate Device", the Y symbol that denotes Chicago and can be found all across the city in everything from ornament on bridges to the lights of the Chicago Theater marquee.
In the case of Boston-born Aras Burak Sen's first prize entry, this is accomplished through a "Bridge of Hope . . . shaped as the peace sign connecting three sides of the river." Sen shows his OMA roots in the way his design includes semi-autonomous components - in this case eight stacked structures, each holding archives for a single year of Obama's presidency and rotated to provide a different view out onto Chicago - contained within a single mega-structure, a giant sphere that evokes memories of Etienne-Louis Boullée's Cenotaph memorial for Isaac Newton.

The proposal includes a commentary on the limits of power . . .
The levels above this bridge is the distortion of the hope in random directions.  The form of these floors could be seen as the artifacts of an era struggling to do something great when it is impossible to do so.  The distortion of great hopes.
As with other entries, the ground level of the building is seen as an expression of democracy . . .
. . . without any glass, without any walls, Obama Presidential Library provides a free amphitheater for Chicago to communicate, discuss anything.  The Bridge of Hope cuts through the theatre, looking above discussions being held, allowing them to be overhead.
Sen's intent is to distinguish the Obama from other libraries that are "no different than a mausoleum for the president."

"The jurors felt", said Miller, "that the monumentality and the disruption of the platonic volume with these view portals into different directions and different neighborhoods of the city was very, very symbolic.  The jury concluded, said Miller, "this monumental building was something that would hold the site very well, and that was one of the points that had them coming back to this project."

The Big O

A different kind of symbolism was at play in the other first-prize wining entry, a massive set of 800-foot in diameter, 100-foot-wide rings bridging and floating above the three points of the river's juncture seeking "a brand new typology and form" for the Presidential library."

On hand at the ceremony was the entry's Chinese design team, led by Dr. Zhu Wenyi, Dean of the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing.  "There is a Plan A or Plan B," said Zhu, "But also Plan O.  I think that Plan O is better."
O as in Obama.  O as in the shape of the rings.  "This is a kind of symbol of President Obama," explained Zhu.  "A kind of metaphor" and a spiritual place for visitors to the library.  "Considering that Chicago is the birthplace of skyscrapers and is full of high-rises, the roof engraved with famous quotes from President Obama is designed to be 'the fifth elevation.'"  Zhu talked about creating multi-dimensional spaces that allow visitors strolling along the rings to experience both the library and the city outside.

"I want to emphasize," said Zhu, "the interior space." Obama's life and career are organized around six themes, express in the strutter as "6 parallel ways instead of the separated 'units' of exhibition. Visitors can enjoy different angles of President Obama's life at one time when strolling in the library" in those multi-dimensional spaces.
Zhu Wenyi discusses his teams entry to the the competition

Back to Reality
River Point rises on the competition's hypothetical site
Design competitions are most often the architectural equivalent of fantasy football, but this competition was especially unencumbered by reality.  Not only is the competition's designated site not among the four finalists chosen by the Obama Library Foundation, it's neither vacant nor available.  The concrete core for what will eventually be the 60-story River Point office tower is rising quite visibly there now.

This disconnection of the competition with the actual problems of the city left me pre-disposed to hostility, but in looking at the five winners now on display at CAF, I was struck by the fact that the entrants are bringing far more analysis and imagination to the project than will likely ever be seen in the library building that's actually constructed.  (The work of the named architect for the library will be tightly constrained by the National Archive's 265 page brief Architectural and Design Standards for Presidential Libraries. )

More to the point, it now appears the addiction to fantasy may spill far beyond the competition, taking in the supposedly big-power players attempting to lure the library to Chicago.

In a recent column, the Sun-Times's Michael Sneed claimed the final decision on where to locate the library has been placed firmly in the hands of Michelle Obama.  According to Sneed, the First Lady wants the library go to New York's Columbia University, a city and school with zero relation to Barack Obama's history.  And wouldn't that be a a kick in the head to a city that thinks it wrote the book on insider politics?

I can see the T-shirts now:  "The Obama Library went to Columbia and all I got was this nifty design idea".
Presidential Libraries: Designing a Legacy is currently on view at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. You can view the winning entries on-line, as well as a video of the award ceremonies.


Unknown said...

While I love some of the entries,especially the subversive Drone Aviary, IMO the debate is all going to be moot when Mrs. Obama chooses another city for the library. Do we really need a separate library for every president anyway?

jack said...

for our first black President and the one that finally instituted national health care?


Craig said...

Haha, it's funny that you compare the architectural competitions to daily fantasy sports, as I am an architect myself and I also love to play on daily fantasy sports websites and I agree that they are similar, like you said!