by Dan Rafter
If Peter Ruggiero had his way, the future Barack Obama Presidential Library would one day rise from Chicago’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood on the city’s South Side.
That’s where architects with the Chicago office of architecture firm HOK propose locating the museum. No one knows what site will eventually house the project. But HOK submitted its own museum proposal to the Barack Obama Foundation on June 16. It joins other proposals now in front of the foundation.
Ruggiero, design principal leader at HOK, said that the Bronzeville location would meet the major goals listed in the museum project’s original RFP. And one of the most important is that the library provides a positive economic benefit to whatever neighborhood it calls home.
Ruggiero said that this would happen in Bronzeville, as the museum would draw visitors from downtown Chicago and the already crowded museum campus on the lakeshore as well as visitors from across the country.
“The RFP states that the library should be a generator of economic development,” Ruggiero said. “That can certainly happen in Bronzeville. It’s an area that has tremendous urban potential. The idea is that the Obama library would be this fertile seed that can be planted to not only archive his presidency and the research associated with it but to speak to his legacy, too. This library can be about change, real change.”
Ruggiero said that the HOK proposal also reflects Obama’s own grassroots election campaigns. HOK designed the museum plans in collaboration with more than 20 firms, organizations and community groups, mirroring the grassroots approach that Obama took on his way to the White House.
The Bronzeville neighborhood’s own history makes it a good site for the museum, too, Ruggiero said. Bronzeville is known as the city’s original African-American neighborhood. Obama, of course, made history as the first African-American president of the United States.
Opening the lakefront
Another important factor for the Bronzeville site? It would open a stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline that is now mostly blocked to residents.
Chicago’s lakefront is designed to serve as a recreational area for all of the city’s residents. But in Bronzeville, the campus of the former Michael Reese Hospital effectively blocks the lakefront from the neighborhood’s residents. The Obama library plans call for that to change. HOK’s plans state that the library should be located on 98 acres that today are a truck parking lot near Soldier Field and the former Michael Reese site.
Today, those acres are unattractive, a blot on the city’s lakefront. There’s also a barrier to the beauty of the lakeshore. But with a new museum rising from the site? That would, as HOK officials say, bring the lakefront back to the residents of — and visitors to — the Bronzeville neighborhood.
The site also gives HOK the chance to practice what is known as biomimicry. This means that the museum site will be functionally indistinguishable from the area’s natural coastal environment. In other words, it will fit in seamlessly while providing no harm to the lakefront.
“This site has the potential to be a blank slate for sustainability,” said Colin Rohlfing, sustainability leader for HOK. “The open nature of the site is so enticing. We had to go for this site.”
HOK officials envision a day when vertical farming and environmental research takes place at the site. There are also plans for a vertical park on the proposed museum campus that would offer impressive views of the Bronzeville community and swaths of other Chicago neighborhoods.
Best of all? The Obama library would not be a static project under HOK’s plans. Instead, it would change over time along with Bronzeville.
“This is a project that would not end with the construction and development of the presidential library,” Ruggiero said. “The site and the development of it would continue to grow and evolve. What we’re proposing is really a framework that would enable the site to evolve over time. That is part of what attracted us to this project, the opportunity to be part of an important project in our backyard that can help define a part of the city.”