Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin reported that the Barack Obama Presidential Library that (according to multiple news reports) will be built on the South Side of Chicago in 2017 may be designed by London-based, Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye. Kamin discusses the possible controversy over not using a Chicago-based, or African-American, or American architect — for this iconic national building.
Adjaye would be the first non-American architect to design a presidential library. Boosting his already substantial profile, the Art Institute of Chicago in September will mount a solo exhibition of his work, which includes the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall and Denver’s cool, cubelike Museum of Contemporary Art.
Yet some are asking: Why the focus on Adjaye? Why not an African-American architect like North Carolina’s Philip Freelon, who designed a Washington, D.C., library that Obama visited last week? Or why not one of Chicago’s leading architects, like Jeanne Gang, Helmut Jahn, Ralph Johnson or John Ronan?
“Why aren’t we bringing up the names of African-American architects?” said Marshall Brown, an associate professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who is African-American. “Why aren’t we talking about younger architects, bringing someone new onto the national or international stage?”
As a sustainability scholar, I have further questions, though perhaps not ones one might suspect from a sustainability scholar. True, I could hope that the building be designed to adhere to LEED or Passive or Living Building Challenge specifications, all of which focus on the performance of the completed structure as it relates to environmental concerns. I do support those goals, but my question is simple. Shouldn’t this library that will reshape a large swath of the South Side of Chicago be designed with the help and approval of the oft-negelected South Siders who will live around it?
Before dismissing my question as silly, consider that what I propose is in keeping with the work MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow Rick Lowe has done for decades. His most famous achievement, Houston’s Project Row Houses (PRH), is lauded for its use of artistic expression in neighborhood revitalization. Central to that innovation is a careful, sustained dialogue with the members of the affected community about what a development may mean to them and how it may serve them.
The MacArthur Foundation recognized the value of Lowe’s work, stating:
Originally trained as a painter, Lowe shifted the focus of his artistic practice in the early 1990s in order to address more directly the pressing social, economic, and cultural needs of his community. With a group of fellow artists, he organized the purchase and restoration of a block and a half of derelict properties—twenty-two shotgun houses from the 1930s—in Houston’s predominantly African American Third Ward and turned them into Project Row Houses (PRH), an unusual amalgam of arts venue and community support center.
Since its founding in 1993, PRH has served as a vital anchor for what had been a fast-eroding neighborhood, providing arts education programs for youth, exhibition spaces and studio residencies for emerging and established artists, a residential mentorship program for young mothers, an organic gardening program, and an incubator for historically appropriate designs for low-income housing on land surrounding the original row houses. While inviting constant collaboration with local residents, artists, church groups, architects, and urban planners, Lowe continues to provide the guiding vision for PRH as he pursues his overarching goal of animating the assets of a place and the creativity of its people. He is not only bringing visibility and pride to the Third Ward by celebrating the beauty of its iconic shotgun houses; he is also changing the lives of many PRH program graduates and expanding the PRH campus to cover a six-block area in an effort to preserve the historic district’s character in the face of encroaching gentrification.
Why is this important? Barack Obama’s presidential library has strong symbolic value as one sited in an urban area with many social and economic challenges. Too often, the people who live near the proposed sites have suffered neglect or conscious abuse by those in power (such as the municipal government or, as Jane Jacobs illustrated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the University of Chicago). At a time when Chicago’s municipal government is criticized for not attending to the voices and needs of many of its citizens, planning a presidential library with the help of the working-class people who will be affected by its construction and operation strikes me as the most sustainable process possible. Giving these community members a stake it its design may lead to them creating ways to use and contribute to the library in the decades ahead. Allowing their voices to be heard in a meaningful way also strikes me as setting a tone for the legacy of community organizer-turned-President Obama in history.
Bringing the library’s neighbors into the planning process is more revolutionary than selecting a particular architect. It is consistent with the state of the art of sustainable building strategies (as this half-hour video from the Rocky Mountain Institute emphasizes). It runs counter to the decades of neglect and abuse heaped upon the communities surrounding the sites. It also would be a favorable part of the legacy of whichever architect gets her or his name attached to the project. I urge the Barack Obama Foundation to consider this approach when planning this important historic development.