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Blair Kamin on the Architects for the Obama Library, and the Lawsuit that Thwarted George Lucas

It has been an eventful couple of weeks in Chicago. Toward the end of June, filmmaker George Lucas announced that he would be pulling out of the city and taking his Museum of Narrative Art elsewhere. A day later, in a long awaited announcement, the Barack Obama Foundation named Tod Williams and Billie Tsien as architects for the presidential library. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin has spent months covering both stories, so I decided to do a kind of post-mortem with him both on the Lucas decision and the Williams Tsien announcement. As it turns out, the projects were related.

 

MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
BK: Blair Kamin

MCP:

Let’s start first with Lucas pulling his museum out of Chicago. Explain the sequence of events that led up to it.  Was the lawsuit, brought by Friends of the Parks, the last shot at blocking it?

BK:

Yes. Lucas had obtained the needed approvals from all the regulatory bodies in Chicago. Of course, that was done the ”Chicago Way,” with Mayor Rahm Emanuel forcing opponents into line. The courts proved decisive, as they have for more than a century in protecting the lakefront. It was democracy at work. Checks and balances.

MCP:

Could Lucas have gotten a smaller, perhaps different, design approved for that site, or was Friends against any building on the lakefront?

BK:

The case had very little to do with the design, or even with square footage. It revolved around  the public trust doctrine. The U.S. Supreme Court first articulated the doctrine in the 1890s in a case involving the Illinois Central Railroad and its attempt to use lake bottom, off the shoreline of Lake Michigan, as the foundation for an outer harbor. The high court found against giving a private corporation monopoly control over navigated waterways. In later years, particularly in the 1970s, as the environmental movement gained strength, the public trust doctrine expanded to become a weapon against both environmental degradation and the privatization of public spaces that governments are supposed to hold in trust for the people.

      Still, it’s worth remembering that the Lucas case never went to trial. U.S. District Judge John W. Darrah allowed the case to proceed, ruling that Friends of the Parks had advanced plausible arguments based on the public trust doctrine. The longer the court battle lasted, it wasn’t just the law that was against Lucas—it was the clock. He already had lost an attempt to build this museum in San Francisco. He’s in his early seventies, and he wants to see this museum built before he dies. In the end, he and Mellody Hobson, his wife and a noted financial executive, foresaw a long, drawn-out court battle. That led them to pull up stakes.

MCP:

Why did the case draw national attention?

BK:

This wasn’t just George Lucas against Friends of the Parks. It was Friends against some of the most globally celebrated names in architecture. Lucas selected Ma Yansong, a very talented Chinese architect, to design the building. He hired Jeanne Gang to supervise the landscape design. When Ma’s initial design was heavily criticized, Frank Gehry defended Ma and said that the design should be given time to evolve. Michael Sorkin entered the fray and argued that this radical design would continue Chicago’s tradition of adventurous architecture. What Michael and the others ignored was that Rahm Emanuel railroaded this thing through.

MCP:

The complete absence of any kind of public input.

BK:

Exactly. The issue here was not simply the product, but the process. It was a classic Chicago Way deal. Lucas articulated his criteria, the city delivered a site that fit that criteria and the public was on the sidelines. Most important, the state, which the public trust doctrine says is supposed to have a fiduciary responsibility for these lands, was nowhere to be seen. They didn’t come on the scene until much later, when the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill, saying that it was OK for museums to go on public trust land. That was clearly not enough for Judge Darrah.

MCP:

Why do you think this little rag-tag citizen’s group prevailed?

BK:

Because they were right on the merits, even though they were totally unslick and often internally divided. In fall 2014, Friends of the Park came into the Tribune editorial board for a meeting. As we say in journalism, they buried the lede. About fifteen minutes into their presentation, they announced that they were going to sue in federal court, to prevent the museum from being built on the lakefront. What was shocking to us was the legal foundation on which they planned to build their case. In the past, the group had relied on Chicago’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, a legal vehicle to maintain openness in the parks along the shoreline. Instead they went the route of the public trust doctrine.

When we heard it at first, quite honestly, my colleagues and I were baffled, because the doctrine had been used only sporadically in lakefront development fights. I remember saying, “What kind of crazy, off-the-wall legal strategy is that?” But it turned out to be brilliant, not only substantively but also tactically. Going into federal court took the case out of the hands of politically-influenced judges in Cook County—away from the long reach of Rahm. It was a very similar strategy to the one civil rights lawyers pursued in the Deep South during the 1960s. They got around racist judges by going to federal court.

MCP:

When the state approved the lakefront site for Lucas, was it for this specific building, or was it a broader mandate?

BK:

The legislature’s action was written in general language, but it had a clear specific purpose. To aid the Lucas Museum and protect the Obama Library.

MCP:

How will all that affect the Obama Library, should they choose the site in Jackson Park?

BK:

Friends of the Parks has indicated that it will not mount a court challenge to the Obama Library, whether it’s in Jackson Park or Washington Park. The African American community on the South Side, where both potential sites are located, believes that the project would be an economic development engine for neighborhoods very much in need of such assistance.

 

obama library sites
MCP:

I think that’s a pretty good argument.

BK:

I do too, even though there will surely be columns and critiques which charge that the Obama library is usurping public park space.

MCP:

There already have been.

BK:

And there will continue to be. However, until we get a site selection and see a site plan, it’s premature to condemn the Obama library out of hand. I’m optimistic that a balance can be struck here between architecture and landscape. I think Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are particularly well-suited to do that.

MCP:

Let’s talk about that selection. The Obama Foundation ran a pretty tight ship, as far as word leaking out about which way the president and first lady might be leaning.

BK:

True, but I had some scooplets after seven firms were short-listed last December. We knew that four of those firms had been invited to meetings with the Obamas in late spring: Williams Tsien, SHoP, John Ronan, and Snohetta. I do know from one of those architects, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, that President Obama tended to ask questions about the art of architecture. The president knows what he likes, this architect said, while Mrs. Obama was more inclined to ask how a space would feel, how it would work.

      What’s interesting is that two of seven short-listed firms—David Adjaye’s and Renzo Piano’s—would have been the first non-American selected to design a presidential library. Instead, we have another first: Billie Tsien will be the first woman to co-design a presidential library. That’s significant for what it symbolizes about the progress (admittedly still too slow) women architects are making in overcoming gender inequality and for the substance of the design that we have yet to see.

Clearly, Williams and Tsien represent a very different kind of choice than, say, a Calatrava or Gehry. They are modernists, but not expressionists. Theirs is an architecture of subtlety rather than the sugar high of eye candy. It displays a real sensitivity to place. There was a telling quote, where Billie Tsien said, we often break up what might be signature buildings into pieces, into an ensemble of smaller buildings because that creates a sense of place. She speaks of buildings as verbs, not nouns—experiences, not objects.

Williams and Tsien are going to need all their skills to negotiate the myriad challenges ahead of them. Those include putting all or part of the presidential center in an Olmsted-designed park and relating to the surroundings of the building, which for the first time in the history of presidential libraries will be a poor and predominately African American community. And, of course, they have the very high bar of Chicago architecture to meet. Tod and Billie are a very good choice, but at same time, success is by no means guaranteed. The stakes are very high for them, as well as the city.

 

Featured image via CurbedChicago.

 

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