In Brief

Obama Presidential Library: Design concepts revealed

Former president says his $500 million library in Chicago will transform a troubled area, others see it as an ego trip

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Last week, former US president Barack Obama spoke in Chicago about his plans for the presidential library to be named after him.

Set to open in 2021, the library will be one of 14 presidential libraries owned by the National Archives and Records Administration. It will be designed to preserve the papers, records and collections of every president of the United States dating back to Herbert Hoover in the 1920s.

Obama's library will be situated in Jackson Park, Chicago, a low-income neighbourhood of his home city. It will consist of a campus made up of three buildings, including a museum, as is the custom for presidential libraries.

The entire plan is expected to cost around $500million and the design is being led by husband-and-wife architectural team Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who were awarded the commission last June. Featuring a centrepiece building of angular yellow stone walls and a staggering 225,000 sq ft of grounds with rooftop gardens and broad plazas, the design's unexpected grandiosity has provoked both criticism and praise in equal measure.

On social media, many have described the design as "amazing", while members of Chicago's community are equally positive.

But others, such as the online publication Wired, are less in awe of the lavish design. "The monolithic monument, which could stand as tall as 180 feet once built, features staggered, light-hued stone cladding and brings to mind an ancient ziggurat, which some might consider a testament to Obama's well-documented ego," it writes.

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 03:A rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park, is displayed at the South Shore Cultural Center during a rou

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2017 Getty Images

This opulent final vision of the library only came to fruition through Obama's direct intervention.

Speaking to ArchDaily, Tsien recounted the designers' first meeting with the former president to discuss the plans.

"He said it [the library] was too 'unflashy'. He looked at what we did and he said, 'I said you could be sort of quiet, but I think you're a little too quiet."

Added quirks to the new complex lend both an air of modernism and a touch of cutting edge to Obama's plans.

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 03:A rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park, is displayed at the South Shore Cultural Center during a rou

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2017 Getty Images

Much has been made of the fact that for the first time in history all unclassified paper records from the Obama administration will be converted into digital formats. The choice to digitise all documents has drawn accolades from almost all corners. Politico describes the decision as "astonishing" and says it will make it "considerably difficult for his successors to take us backward".

Obama's design also encapsulates the 55-year-old's commitment to creating a beacon of community spirit in an area of Chicago that USA Today says has been "beset by the scourge of gun violence that has overwhelmed the city for the last 16 months". During his unveiling speech, Obama laid out plans for the library to include a "children's play area that would attract families from the neighbourhood and a community garden for schoolchildren".

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 03:A rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park, is displayed at the South Shore Cultural Center during a rou

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2017 Getty Images

By laying out plans to create a friendly, informative and creative space for families and schoolchildren alike, Obama has made an implicit wish for the presidential library to be transformative for the troubled area. "If you ask a lot of people outside of Chicago, about Chicago, what's the first thing they talk about? They talk about the violence," he said.

"It's not as good as it could be. What we want this to be is the world premiere institution for training young people in leadership to (help them) make a difference in their communities, in their country and in their world," he said.

But aware of the repercussions of such a costly and extensive project springing up in a low income neighbourhood, he added: "I would also hope that the library would not gentrify the community."

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