Carving out space in Olmsted-designed Jackson Park for Obama’s presidential library misses an opportunity—and sets a bad precedent.

Grammed and rested, former President Barack Obama returned to work this week after a long vacation with First Lady Michelle. His first order of business, before his deep dive into the Democratic Party’s systemic gerrymandering disadvantage, was to introduce his presidential library and center, which is bound for Chicago’s South Side.

Former President Barack Obama explains some of the renderings of the new library.
Former President Barack Obama explains some of the renderings of the new library. © Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune


The design is in keeping with the architects’ work: formal and restrained, with a focus on materials and contrasting vertical and horizontal elements. Inasmuch as design can stand in as a metaphor for politics, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have Obama’s famously cool temperament down. The former First Family picked TWBTA over a group of finalists that number among the top design firms in the world: SHoP ArchitectsSnøhettaRenzo PianoDavid Adjaye, and Chicago’s John Ronan Architects.

It’s hard to find any objections with the design so far. But the same can’t be said for the site placement: As I wrote back in 2015, it has a critical flaw, one that sets a bad precedent for park use everywhere. Chicagoans may not miss the sports fields on the park’s perimeter that the presidential library will replace. However, there’s a risk here of missing the trees for the forest. Chicago is slowly giving away an historic park when the city and its partners should be creating new civic spaces where there’s opportunity.   

The University of Chicago and the Barack Obama Foundation plan to carve out some 20 acres from Jackson Park, one of the South Side’s most important amenities, to build the Obama Presidential Center. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects who gave New Yorkers Central Park, designed Jackson Park in 1871. Two decades later, it served as the sublime setting for the World’s Columbian Exposition, the backdrop for Erik Larson’s essential The Devil in the White City.