Decoding the symbolism of the planned Obama Presidential Center
When the plans for a monument to President Obama in Chicago were unveiled last May, the first impression was of blinding whiteness and the odd massing of a squat tower with wide hips. Very strange for a man whose major claim to fame is being the first black president, and a building in Chicago where soot, grime, and slush are prevalent.
The plan sparked massive community opposition, an irony so telling for the community organizer president that a revised version and a less invasive footprint on park land were announced. The revised design, released three days ago, was a little less white, taller, and slightly less squat, with a bit of texture breaking up the sheer whiteness but retained the cenotaph-like massing of the tower.
If there was a wave of praise and delight for either version of the monument – not a presidential library, housing no presidential records under the control of the National Archives – I missed it entirely. The best that could be said was, via The Chicago Tribune:
The new tower design calls for a high-rise that would be taller, thinner[,] and more transparent than a version unveiled last May, which was widely panned as monolithic and pyramidlike. Portions of the revamped tower's outside walls would consist of screens made of stone letters, making the tower airier while suggesting the importance of words in Barack Obama's presidency.
In a video distributed Tuesday night by the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit tasked with building the center, Obama said the museum tower represents "ascension, hope[,] and what ordinary people have the power to do together."
What could possibly be the intent of the first version and its follow-on?
My friend Lauri Regan had a brilliant insight. Compare the original design to the Martlin Luther King, Jr. monument in Washington, D.C.: