- ** editors note: this blog post was written under duress and perhaps became too political. **
** note to editor: stop writing political opinion pieces, and don’t write when you are angry! **
Pharaoh Khufu built the first pyramid at Giza, circa 2550 B.C., and still today, powerful men|1| impart their power and influence to construct lasting monuments in reverence to their self-idolizing grandeur.
Just like powerful leaders centuries ago in foreign lands, today’s United States Presidents still leverage their power to redefine their legacies by constructing shrines in their honor. These shrines contain important historical documents that scholars can use to further understand their importance, they oftentimes serve as a burial in-memoriam to their legacy,|2| and they usually contain a restaurant and a gift shop; but mostly they charge visitors an entrance fee to gawk at Presidential bric-a-brac.
At the opening of George W. Bush’s nondescript Presidential library, on the Southern Methodist University campus, Bill Clinton summed up the grandiose event by quipping,
“I told President Obama, that this was the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt pledged part of his estate in Hyde Park, New York to become the first Presidential library and museum building. Roosevelt believed that personal and presidential papers should be accessible to the public, and were an important part of the national heritage.
However, if a previous President built a shrine for themselves, then the next President who views himself as having more influence and importance than his predecessor, will surely want a larger and more expensive shrine. Thus, Harry S. Truman decided that he, too, would build a library to house his Presidential papers.
Ergo, the Law of Unintended Consequences had been set in motion, whereas every successive President now
wants needs a grander museum. However, the problem with trends is, if you’re not starting a trend, then you are following it downwards.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) operates these facilities with a strong moral compass and idealized goals. The objective of each Presidential Library is to uphold American values by freely allowing access to historical records, promoting a more thorough understanding of the presidency, supporting research, and to “educate and inspire.”
But what began as a great purpose, is now a grand illusion, masquerading as a research center, while leveraging Government resources to operate propaganda museums on behalf of these former Presidents. All of the papers and historical records are within the “campus” of each of these facilities, but are usually stored within a windowless bunker. There may exist a boring reading room with desks and daylight (and pencils provided by archivists), but the records themselves need to be stored within nondescript rooms devoid of ultraviolet light. Employed archivists are only allowed to take researcher’s specific requests and return from the vault with the presumed documents. Even emails are reviewed by an archivist, redacted for any sensitive information, and then printed and given to the researcher.
Most presidential researchers despise the arrangements of individual collections in disparate locations and do not want to travel across the country to each separate facility to review records. Furthermore, the majority of the papers are not digitized and waste valuable square footage. I could foresee a near future where 8 cargo planes to transport Presidential documents will be replaced by 1 hard drive. Perhaps the recent renovation of the Washington Monument could have included one small underground room – equipped with a server rack, 1 monitor, and an inkjet printer – and included every current and future Presidential Library.
Indeed, the vast majority of visitors to Presidential Libraries never utilize the actual “library” portion of the Library. They pay the entrance fee for the museum and admire over all of the Presidential collectibles – before exiting out of the gift shop. Even the William J. Clinton Presidential Center brochure proclaims: Although the Center exists principally to house the presidential archives, 90 percent of visitors come to view the exhibits in the museum.|3|
Perhaps the term “Library” creates the impression of an unbiased museum; since, the museum is curated, mostly, by the former President and his non-profit organization.
The information displayed in these museums is not a fair and balanced analysis of the President. Fox News didn’t curate Bill Clinton’s museum. There is little information regarding Bill Clinton’s torrid affairs, Whitewater controversy, or subjective Presidential pardons.
Nevertheless, museums remain, perhaps, the last great vestige for architecture to define our culture. While many Presidential Libraries wane in attendance in relationship to their departure from office, many Presidential Libraries have begun to redefine themselves as a museum with merely a Presidential namesake. The William J. Clinton Presidential Center now has Dinosaur exhibits, outreach services, and has become the primary forebearer for the redevelopment of the Industrial District in Little Rock.
FDR’s original Presidential Library was in Hyde Park, New York – population 21,571.
And Barack Obama’s Presidential Library will exist adjacent to Hyde Park in Chicago – population 2,719,000. Therefore, it will inhabit a vastly different typology than the quaint original intentions for a Presidential Library – in the other Hyde Park.
Barack Obama’s Presidential Library (which I will thus refer to as the Obama Presidential Center) will be constructed in parkland adjacent to the University of Chicago and Hyde Park. The University of Chicago boasts about it’s diversity, yet outside of Hyde Park’s confines – north of 47th Street, south of 61st Street, and west of Cottage Grove Avenue – lies neighborhoods that are predominantly African American and poor. (The following graphic shows population data with Green dots portraying the overwhelmingly Black population in the South Side, whereas Blue Dots portray the White populace.)
Barack Obama has not yet decided upon an architect to design his new Presidential Library, but I am optimistic he will choose a poignant, galvanizing architect – perhaps even a local Chicago architect such as the astounding Jeanne Gang.|4| Unfortunately, Obama has not developed a reputation as a person that utilizes architecture to improve the built environment.
Obama’s only major architectural initiative, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, may have temporarily stimulated the economy,|5| yet the vast majority of stimulation went to re-paving infrastructure. Thus, now we are left with the signage vestiges propagandizing the apparent change that occurred a mere 6 years ago.
Only through design can one create lasting change. Merely re-paving over deteriorating infrastructure doesn’t resolve the underlying problem, it only creates a temporary solution. The future President two terms from today can replace the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signage with a new re-branded slogan, and she probably also will create temporary jobs within the transportation industry – but she will never improve the built environment without thoughtful design.
Furthermore, many South Side residents are skeptical of a Presidential Library providing the necessary underpinning to aid in their outlook. Many campaigners are arguing for the U. of C. to reopen a trauma center to provide nearby life support for gunshot victims instead of extravagant spending on a museum.
Others, such as Rahm Emanuel, have promised to improve the surrounding areas into a safe and inviting neighborhood – by improving transportation, providing bike paths, and adding lighting through nearby park trails – albeit, in hopes that the museum draws 800,000 visitors per year.
Indeed, there are many hurdles for the new Obama Presidential Center to overcome, especially within a low-income urban neighborhood, but only through innovative architecture can the Obama Presidential Center initiate a new trend, a trend that is followed upwards.
The long-time residents of Chicago’s South Side have been longing to rid themselves of crime, low-income, and despair. Thus, the Obama Presidential Center needs to become the embodiment of Barack Obama’s former self – the community organizer. The new Obama Presidential Center needs to become not just a beacon within the community, but a cultural services center that facilitates and organizes local residents to grow and to prosper.
It’s one thing to have the audacity of hope, but it’s another thing to have the audacity to create lasting change.
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1 I’m not sexist, but historically leaders have been predominantly male.
2 Although current U.S. Presidents probably won’t be buried in a golden sarcophagus.
3 I think 90% is probably even a little conservative.
4 In which case, I will disregard all of my previous ramblings and start planning my future trip to Chicago.
5 Or it may have just given money to established businesses in the transportation industry.