Architectstasy.

The Obama Presidential Library: A Call For Restraint

There’s a circus coming to town.

And by “to town”, I mean the United States.  And by “circus”, I mean the horrifically overblown pomp and circumstance that’s going to get accorded the Obama Presidential Library.

You guys, can we just agree in advance to CHILL OUT about it?

The architects on the popular short list are all giants of their craft.  Its location, on Chicago’s South Side, was sensitively and wisely chosen.  As usual, the project will be paid for by the President, his friends and supporters.

The maintenance, however, will fall to the National Archives and Records Association (NARA), a department of the federal government.  And for that reason, if for no other, it behooves us to advocate loudly and often for restraint in size, in program, in operations expectations of – let’s face it – the next paragovernmental tourist attraction: let’s let the burden on the American people be modest.

“Library” is a bit of a misnomer.  The tradition started with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had so many files and artifacts that he consulted with several people on the best way to set up and maintain the collection.  After deep thought and long conversations with historians and fellow public figures, he announced in 1938 that he would be planning an archive, called a “library”, and his model has set the precedent for presidents ever since.

Architecture critic Ada Louise was biting in her indictment of the “presidential library” type.  In her book, Kicked A Building Lately?, she easily acknowledges the need for these archives, but says:

[w]here the moral quicksand comes in is at the point where scholars and architects capable of giving the stamp of credibility and taste to these increasingly peculiar enterprises lend their names to them, affected, perhaps, by equal dreams of glory.  They package the dubious product with high expertise.  Then it is handed over to tourism and head counts.  A whole false thing has grown up, icon-conscious and publicity-wise, supersold, with a skillful eye cocked at the masses.  At what moment, one wonders, did American presidents get into the competitive pantheon business?

There are no characters in this story with something to prove.  For better or for worse (and I’ll leave it to the pundits to decide which), the Obama administration has left indelible marks on our nation’s history with the Affordable Care and Economic Stabilization Acts, the Supreme Court legislating gay marriage into federal existence, and drastically expanded support for veterans, hate crimes protections, and stem cell research.  The social, financial, fiscal, and scientific landscape and trajectory of our country are drastically different from eight years ago; President Obama’s collection of memorabilia and artifacts won’t make these accomplishments any weightier.  Similarly, candidates like David Adjaye, Jeanne Gang, and Renzo Piano have nothing they need to prove, either to their colleagues or to the general public.  Their design skills, sensitivity to urban contexts, and responsiveness to program is beyond reproach.

So let’s let the design process be sane and considered, the facility modest and efficient, the design extraordinary in its restraint.  Let’s let this be an honorable discharge of President Obama’s final archive and not a constructed farce for the sake of spectacle…shall we?

 

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