On Tuesday, October 29, the nonprofit Obama Foundation released the third round of renderings for the Obama Presidential Center, the 20-acre complex coming to the historic Jackson Park in Chicago’s South Side. Designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA), the $500 million project has been a long-time coming and has miles to go before it hopes to be approved for construction next year. 

Deemed too heavy and foreboding when it was first unveiled in May 2017, the initial version of the central museum tower was scrapped and TWBTA went back to the drawing board only to emerge with a taller, lighter vision intended to please both President Obama and local Chicagoans. According to Blair Karmin of the Chicago Tribune, Obama still wanted the structure to be more engaging in form, hence the more faceted look revealed now. 

Exterior rendering of museum tower from main street

The faceted granite facade will now feature a more textured design than previous renderings. Shown here: The north side of the museum tower from Stony Island Avenue (Courtesy Obama Foundation)

But Kamin, in his weekly Sunday column, said the idea for the now-235-foot-tall building is still not where it needs to be:

“The design…is considerably improved, especially on its main, south-facing front. But the tower has yet to become a compelling object — or icon, to use the currently overused word — from all sides. That matters. Because when you’re planning on putting a 235-foot-tall tower in Jackson Park and dramatically altering a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, you had better be pitch-perfect from every angle of the compass.”

One of the most notable updates to the tower is an 88-foot-tall slender cutout that reveals activity and the circulation inside. From within the building, the skinny swath of window showcases views of The Forum building to the left and the Michael Van Valkenburgh-designed landscape below. The biggest issue the architects will face now, per Kamin’s review, is rethinking the north side of the structure—what people driving southbound will see first as they enter the complex. Right now, it appears brutalist in form, with very few windows, though the building still features the elongated window mirrored on the front. 

Exterior rendering of trees in the fall on the plaza of the complex

Michael Van Valkenburgh will introduce a series of landscape elements into the complex, including a two-acre children’s play area and “wetlands walk.” (Courtesy Obama Foundation)

The good news is that Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, principals of their eponymous firm in New York, are experienced museum designers. In fact, their firm almost exclusively takes on cultural and academic projects, places that are open to the general public. The duo just wrapped up construction on Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art, a small and airy museum with big-gallery energy, as well as The Goel Center for Theater and Dancer at the University of Exeter.

The Obama Presidential Center is arguably the tallest museum they’ve ever designed; the building houses vertically-stacked galleries inside a textured, granite-clad massing. “We design from the inside out,” Williams told the Chicago Tribune.

The design team will produce a fourth version of the building before its likely 2020 groundbreaking, as the text on the upper screen wall still needs to be finalized.

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