The Obama Presidential Library in Chicago
courtesy Obama Foundation The Obama Presidential Library in Chicago

One of the highlights at the 2022 AIA Conference on Architecture in Chicago was President Barack Obama’s keynote, during which he and AIA president Dan Hart, FAIA, discussed a variety of topics, from his favorite architects and his relationship to architecture to his new Presidential Center and ongoing issues facing the country. “When you think about iconic buildings, I tend toward the modern,” Obama said. “A building like the Sydney Opera House is hard to beat.”

Growing up in Hawaii made Obama appreciate the work of tropical Modernist architect Vladimir Ossipoff, who designed the Liljestrand House in Honolulu and the Thurston Memorial Chapel at Punahou School where he was a student. A longtime Chicago resident, Obama discussed his love of his hometown by sharing lessons learned from his eight years in office, including his ongoing engagement with many of AIA’s strategic priorities, including the link between the climate crisis and social justice. When he was younger, Obama told the audience, he was interested in becoming an architect, but while in college, his interests turned toward social justice. “My love for architecture never went away,” he said, pointing to working with architects like Tod Williams, FAIA, Billie Tsien, AIA, and Dina Griffin, FAIA, on the Obama Presidential Center that they are building in Chicago, which he hopes will be a hub for the community and a transformative piece of architecture. “Our goal is not to build a mausoleum—since I’m not dead yet,” he said, “but to create a campus and a living, breathing dynamic institution that can not only speak about the presidency and the times that we went through, but we hope it can become a laboratory and university for social change, where young people can come and can learn about ways they can impact their communities.”

While pointing to the impressive architecture of Chicago—such as the Jay Pritzker Pavilion by Frank Gehry, FAIA, at Millennium Park—Obama also used the city as a case study where architecture at times reinforced inequity, citing public housing like Cabrini–Green Homes on Chicago’s Near North Side and how it isolated people and reinforced racial segregation. “How do we plan for space and create affordable housing and mixed-use housing, and apply the principles that Jane Jacobs wrote about in creating organic neighborhoods?” he said. “So, that is where good planning and skilled architects are needed.”

Obama believes that some of the problems found in major American cities are the result of policy and zoning decisions. “This is an example of where it’s not just a lack of funding for affordable housing,” he said. “Frankly, some very well-intentioned laws and regulations at the local level, often generated from the left and from my own party, sometimes are inhibiting the creation of affordable housing and empowering NIMBY attitudes that make it very difficult to integrate communities and allow people to live close to where they work.” He compared cities in Texas in which housing is more affordable with San Francisco, where a teacher must live an hour away from their workplace. “Some of the most liberal communities in the country aren’t that liberal when it comes to situating affordable housing,” he said. “That’s something that I think we have to spend more time talking about.”

Obama urged architects to listen to communities. “The single most important thing I learned and carried through my entire career is listening to people. Turns out you don’t learn that much talking, but you do learn a lot listening,” he said. “If people feel as if you’re actively listening and care about their stories and lives, they will tell you what’s important to them and who they are. That applies to every profession, including architecture.”

This article first appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of ARCHITECT.