A Smart (And Totally Unsolicited) Design For Obama’s Official Library

A Smart (And Totally Unsolicited) Design For Obama’s Official Library

Last week, we looked at where Obama’s forthcoming presidential library should be built: Chicago, Hawaii or (psh) New York? Chicago was the popular winner, and now the first speculative design for a Chicago library has been published online.

Michael Sorkin, a New York architect who has designed masterplans everywhere from Chicago to China, recently posted his studio’s conceptual plan on Scribd. The crux of their idea? To use Obama’s library as a catalyst for change in the South Side neighbourhood of Woodlawn — which you might know as the setting for a Raisin in the Sun, chronicling the experience of a black family moving into the neighbourhood during the late 1950s.

A Smart (And Totally Unsolicited) Design For Obama’s Official Library

Woodlawn today by Eric Allix Rogers.

Before we get to the design, a little backstory about the neighbourhood. Woodlawn, like many other South Side neighborhoods, struggled through during the 1970s and 1980s. The nearby University of Chicago, which pursued an aggressive rehabilitation of neighbouring Hyde Park, attempted to do the same in Woodlawn in the 1990s.

During that process, the University commissioned Sorkin (an alumnus) to design a plan for its expansion into the neighbourhood. The school ended up dumping Sorkin from the project, but he and his team ended up designing a series of “alternative” plans for the expansion anyways, published in 2002 under the title Other Plans.

In the end, a community group called The Woodlawn Organisation ended up fighting off the University’s expansion plan, and the University agreed to a “hands-off” policy. Today, Woodlawn is working towards its own renewal — though there’s a distinct boundary between the neighbourhood and its wealthy neighbour.

A Smart (And Totally Unsolicited) Design For Obama’s Official Library

The University of Chicago campus by Thomas Barrat.

That gap is exactly what Sorkin wants to close — using Obama’s library. He envisions the complex as a way to connect the two neighborhoods: Woodlawn, a historic district plagued by urban dilemmas, and the University of Chicago, a center for knowledge that’s been criticised for its relationship with the neighborhoods around it.

The Obamas, you see, bridge the two perfectly. Not only did Obama spend three years on the South Side as a community organiser — he also taught at the University of Chicago. He and Michelle are a symbol of the connection between the two once-distinct neighborhoods. It’s hard to argue with Sorkin’s logic, although it’s a bit tenuous to turn the Obamas’ personal life stories into a piece of urban architecture.

A Smart (And Totally Unsolicited) Design For Obama’s Official Library

So, what exactly does the masterplan envision? Not only a “truly urban” library that’s more than just a pedestal on a city block, but a living urban fabric that includes mixed-use commercial and community spaces. A neighbourhood that draws on Obama’s administration — for example, a High School of Public Affairs affiliated with the University, where David Axelrod directs the Institute for Politics. A center for nutrition and preventive medicine spurred by the First Lady’s work.

And so on — a kind of “model city” for the future of the South Side:

A Smart (And Totally Unsolicited) Design For Obama’s Official Library

The library itself is no more than an afterthought — the studio used a stand-in design to represent its location on the renderings:

A Smart (And Totally Unsolicited) Design For Obama’s Official Library

I called Sorkin’s studio today to find out whether they’d been commissioned to create the project — I imagined that an advocacy group in Chicago could’ve asked them to design a proposal to strengthen the city’s claim to the library. In fact, they designed it simply for fun — as an exercise in the kind of urban-scale changes that Sorkin would like to see the library spur.

“A challenge for the ex-president will be to return to his organiser’s career, enlarged by the skills and powers of governing he has so abundantly acquired over the past two decades,” explains Sorkin. “The thrilling task will be to assist Woodlawn to become a model mix of classes, races, histories, and desires that can serve as an example to cities everywhere.”

In other words, he wants Obama to get back into community planning. And it’s not a bad idea — this is where POTUS got his start, after all. Could history remember Barack Obama as an urban planner? [Scribd]

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