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See the radiant new design for the Obama Presidential Center

Vertical windows and a faceted exterior bring new lightness to the building—but it still has a ways to go, critics say.

In 2017, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA) unveiled its design concept for the Obama Presidential Center, a 20-acre complex slated to live in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood. At the time, the towering stone behemoth was criticized for its imposing size and severe angles, which would dominate the landscape of the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Jackson Park. TWBTA made a few adjustments, which still fell short of the former president’s wish for a more welcoming and engaging form. Now, two years later, the architecture firm has reimagined the “working center for citizenship” for the third time, and the nonprofit Obama Foundation has released new renderings.

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[Image: The Obama Foundation]

This version shows an interest in greater dynamism; the light granite facade is faceted, and an 88-foot-tall window cutout reveals the interior of the 20,000-square-foot complex. In a piece for the Chicago Tribune, architecture critic Blair Kamin writes: “What began as a dull mass of stone has become more animated. There are fewer uninterrupted swaths of stone and more facets that will create shifting patterns of highlights and shadows. The big window introduces an appealing verticality, though it will also create complications for the museum’s exhibition designers, who tend to prefer controlled artificial light to distracting shafts of sunlight.”

The multipurpose space is divided into three distinct structures—a museum, a forum, and a library—which will be made up of various classrooms and labs used for community programming. The museum tower will feature galleries stacked vertically, and the plaza that surrounds it boasts an auditorium and a miniature Chicago public library branch. Renderings also show a two-acre children’s play area and outdoor “wetland walk.”

[Image: The Obama Foundation]

There are high expectations for this $500 million project. After all, trees in Jackson Park were razed and buried artifacts from Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair were ignored in preparation for building this center on rich, cultural soil. Due to pushback from local environmental organizations, whose complaints over the structure’s disruption of a public park have risen to the level of a federal lawsuit (which was later tossed out), it’ll be a while before the Obama Presidential Center is officially green-lit for construction.

The design team at TWBTA has until next year to create an updated, fourth iteration of the building, since the groundbreaking isn’t even scheduled to happen until 2020, after a final federal review. Details such as the text on the building’s upper, outdoor screen—likely an Obama speech quote—still need to be decided.

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