About the Project
Originally scheduled to open its doors in 2020, the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago has yet to break ground. With a strikingly modern design sited in a protected historic park, in a neighbourhood that is home to both a world-leading university and some of the worst violence in the United States, the project has been controversial since planning started in 2014. Debated furiously by city authorities, university officials, local residents, and the federal government alike, (including multiple legal challenges), its future remains uncertain. Meanwhile, provoking ridicule and outrage from professional architects, the Trump administration has floated a potential mandate that all new federal projects conform to traditional classical architecture, not employed on a wide scale since the 1930s. Ironically, it was at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, situated in the same park as the future Obama library, that Beaux Arts classicism first came to the forefront of American design.
As these examples pointedly show, in today’s world of fractured identity politics, the architecture of cultural institutions is increasingly contested, and the role of history itself is up for debate. Should a library or museum be the guardian of cherished tradition, or a beacon for progressive thought? Do they reflect the universal achievements of humanity, or the search for tourist cash and the corporatisation of society? Ambiguities abound, yet irrespective of one’s viewpoint, it is undeniable that cultural institutions wield enormous influence. They are major drivers of both intangible creation (knowledge, policy, art, cultural practices) and considerable economic development. Often straddling the public and private sectors, these institutions assume many roles and identities in the process. While the historical origins of museums, libraries, and universities reach far back, their modern formation began in the nineteenth century, in parallel with urban growth and industrialisation. Originally seen as bastions of ‘high’ culture closely synonymous with European tradition, their evolution over the last two hundred years has seen them adapted globally, playing increasingly diverse roles in the process.
At the same time, cultural institutions remain embedded in particular locations. Whether concentrated or dispersed, large or small, they are active shapers of their surroundings, and in many cases contribute directly to wider urban expansion. This mutual influence is as true today as it was in the nineteenth century, yet it is seldom explored in depth, especially in existing architectural studies. How have cultural institutions evolved in tandem with their locations, and what is their impact on the city? How do they wield influence over urban growth and urban identity? And how has the architectural history of these institutions impacted the contested nature of culture today?
This project is an opportunity to explore the role major cultural institutions have played in shaping the built environment, linking a historical approach with an outlook relevant to the contemporary situation. In the process, it will consider the relationships between building/campus and urban space, between different stakeholders, and between physical presence and conceptions of identity, cultural value, and the evolving role of heritage/tradition. Interdisciplinary methodologies are encouraged, including archival work, mapping and drawing, and observation/interviewing. The project is informed by Dr Stephen Gage’s work on the historical development of university campuses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the University of Chicago and the University of Cambridge. For this project, a similar case study approach will be adopted, looking at a particular cultural institution within an urban area, with considerable scope for pursuing individual research interests depending on the context of the case study choice.
Applicants should have a degree in the humanities or social sciences with expertise in the built environment, including Architecture and Design, Architectural History, or other relevant areas. For informal enquiries, please email Stephen Gage, [Email Address Removed]