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The Obamas’ presidential library design sets the tone for a new chapter in Chicago

The architecture of the Obama Presidential Center, by Tod Williams Billie Tsien, works hard not to be pushy, dressing itself in a subtle coat of stone – and yet it will cut a dramatic figure. (Obama Foundation)

The Obamas have revealed their library – and it comes with a bit of drama.

At a public event at the University of Chicago on Wednesday, Barack and Michelle Obama discussed the scheme for the Obama Presidential Center, which will sit in a park on Chicago’s South Side. The architecture of the complex, by Tod Williams Billie Tsien, works hard not to be pushy, dressing itself in a subtle coat of stone – and yet it will cut a dramatic figure.

It is, in other words, a lot like Barack Obama himself. Such links are inevitable when you consider an American presidential library, a strange type of institution that combines a self-built museum with an archive and some sort of public outreach institution.

The Obama Foundation will spend roughly $500-million (U.S.) building a three-part complex: a museum that appears to be about eight storeys tall, along with a single-storey “forum” and single-storey library.

In drawings, all the buildings are clad in what looks like Jerusalem stone, a creamy limestone that the lead architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, used on the Barnes Foundation art museum in Philadelphia.

The low buildings would have green roofs that would be publicly accessible – a gesture making up for the loss of public green space, which the centre will be consuming through its location in the historic Jackson Park. “The Center as a public campus will encourage local residents and visitors alike to explore the community and bring people together for events, recreation and programming,” the foundation said in a press release.

That choice of a site has been controversial: The park was designed by the pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and it is a major green space within this economically depressed area of the city. The Obamas hope their presence will transform the area, which has a large African-American presence. “With a centre in Jackson Park, not only will we be able to effect local change, but we can attract the world to this historic neighbourhood,” Mr. Obama said in a statement last year.

The design team includes Diana Griffin, a South Side Chicago native, which might soften the blow to locals, along with prominent landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. But the lead designers are architect’s architects: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien run a small and highly regarded firm that focuses on cultural projects and keeps a relatively low profile. Their best-known works are the Barnes and the now-demolished home of the American Folk Art Museum in New York. They favour careful use of natural materials along with massive, frequently inscrutable forms: Their buildings are subtle and not always Instagram-friendly.

The Obama centre, which could break ground next year and be complete in 2021, seems to follow that pattern. The museum, which the foundation calls a “lantern” in the press release, is rather tall and stony, a sloped monolith with few windows that evokes the Pyramids of Giza. No doubt in detail it will be friendlier than that, but its form suggests a strong aesthetic statement.

Just compare it to its predecessors. For his library and centre near Dallas, George W. Bush tapped the traditionalist Robert A.M. Stern to design a vaguely neoclassical building in limestone and red brick. The Clinton Presidential Center, on the other hand, is boldly modernist in its form and expression: Its main component is an elevated “bridge,” 240 feet long, that protrudes out over the adjacent Arkansas River. The architects Polshek Partnership were alluding to Mr. Clinton’s promise to build “a bridge to the 21st century.”

Such broad symbolism seems a bit heavy-handed for the Obamas; the president earned his nickname of “No-Drama Obama.” But the centre, if built in this form, would assertively mark their presence and signal that this part of its city is getting a new chapter. It says: This is change you can believe in.