Opinion

Obama's Presidential Library in Chicago Only Serves as a Wasteful Relic of a Bygone Era

Newly unveiled plans illustrate how wasteful the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago will be and, paradoxically, how a state-of-the-art concept can still be anachronistic

Former U.S. President Barack Obama presents plans for the Obama Presidential Center, May 2017.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

OK, so former U.S. President Barack Obama had romances with other women before he married Michelle and once opted to attend a private event with Beyoncé and Jay-Z over a summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – as biographer David Garrow revealed in his new biography “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama,” and in an interview with Haaretz. What purpose does this kind of information really serve, aside from puritanical voyeurism?

But there’s a less juicy matter – one to be written in stone and cement, and which shines a less flattering light on the 44th U.S. president: Obama’s decision, despite his declaration to the contrary during his first term, to have a presidential library built in his name.

Hopes that Obama would buck the tide were already dashed a year ago when the designers of the library, New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, were selected. Last week, plans for the Obama Presidential Center – to be located in Chicago, not far from Michelle Obama’s birthplace – were revealed, and only underscored just how unnecessary, wasteful and anachronistic the project is, both in terms of the huge financial investment required and the architectural design.

The unveiling was held before an audience of several hundred local representatives and media personnel, and in the presence of members of the Obama Foundation, which is overseeing the project, as well as the architects and the Obamas themselves.

Barack Obama explained the plans in detail (true to his childhood desire to become an architect), and stressed that it would be the first library of its kind that would not house even a single piece of paper.

This conceptual drawing shows plans for the proposed Obama Presidential Center, to be located in Jackson Park on Chicago's South Side.
/AP

The first obvious question, then, is who needs a library when there’s the internet?

The unclassified documents from the presidential archive will be scanned and made available online. No special building, or trip to Chicago, is needed. Classified documents will be preserved in their original form in a separate federal facility outside the library, with copies to be loaned out by special request. It’s no wonder Obama associates are reluctant to use the term “library” and prefer to call it the “Obama Presidential Center.” Others are already derisively referring to it as “Obamaland.”

The Obama Presidential Center, to be built at the southwest corner of Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side, is essentially a campus comprising three buildings within a large public garden. The most notable building is a hulking, pharaonic building covered in light stone that looks like it could have been designed by an Israeli architect in the bad old days of the 1970s.

Rising 55 meters (180 feet), this building will serve as a museum and include exhibition and conference spaces. It will mainly be a “landmark,” which raises doubts about its true necessity from the beginning.

In his remarks at the unveiling, Obama said that rather than be a “monument to the past, a little bit of ego-tripping,” this center “looked forward, not backward, and would provide a place to train future leaders to make a change in their communities, countries and the world.”

This conceptual drawing shows plans for the proposed Obama Presidential Center, to be located in Jackson Park on Chicago's South Side.
/AP

It’s hard not to think all the money and effort needed for the center could have effected greater change if it were invested directly in communities worldwide, and not in concrete walls. As for monuments and ego, an earlier plan submitted by the museum planners was allegedly rejected by Obama as “too quiet,” and he sent them back to the drawing board.

The presidential campus will also include an auditorium, restaurant, gift shop and public library. The public garden, as the former president described it, will be full of life: children will sled down the artificial hills and families can barbecue there, he said, drawing laughs from the crowd. To judge by the simulations, the public garden designed by eminent U.S. landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh seems overly neat and architectural, and not that inviting for a casual stroll along its paths.

The unveiling event was seen as the next step in fundraising for the project. Even before the cornerstone was laid for the Obama Presidential Center, following President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Israel, an invitation was sent for Obama to visit the Israeli “presidential libraries” – the Peres Center for Peace and the Rabin Center. He could surely learn a thing or two about waste, if nothing else. I’d happily volunteer to give him a guided tour.

Between two fires

Chicago’s Jackson Park has had a tumultuous history, of almost biblical proportions. It was originally built in 1893 as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition marking 400 (plus one) years of Columbus’ discovery of America – the New World. It was designed by landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, who also designed New York’s Central Park and was part of the group of renowned architects who designed the fair site and its pavilions. The park spreads over 2.5 square kilometers.

The majority of the pavilions were concentrated where Jackson Park is now located, including the Pavilion of the Arts – one of the few to have survived since then and now home to the Museum of Science and Industry. The planned site of the Obama Presidential Center is nearby. The pavilions were designed in the French neoclassical, Beaux Arts style and were covered with bright white plaster, so came to be known as the White City – about 40 years before Tel Aviv came to have the same moniker.

The Columbian Exposition was the largest anywhere in the world at the time. Forty-six countries took part, and many exciting innovations were presented – including the neon bulb, the zipper and the Ferris wheel. Other inventions and discoveries not yet widely known were also presented, including Thomas Edison’s electric lighting.

The event was a symbol of American optimism and of the city’s revival following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and a model of the city’s re-planning. As with any myth worthy of the name, the tale is not without its tragic element: At the time of the fair, serial killer Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (better known as H. H. Holmes) was active in Chicago. His numerous victims were women who’d come to the city to work at the exposition, as chillingly depicted in Erik Larson’s 2003 novel “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.”

And two days before the exposition was scheduled to close, popular Chicago mayor Carter Harrison Sr. was assassinated, and the closing ceremony became a somber occasion of mourning rather than a festive one of celebration.

In 1894, a fire consumed most of the White City’s pavilions and Jackson Park was built in the space. Who can say whether it was the closing of a circle or a warning from history?