Maya Lin commissioned to design sculptural water feature at Chicago’s Obama Presidential Center

Mists of Time

Maya Lin commissioned to design sculptural water feature at Chicago’s Obama Presidential Center

Rendering of The Ann Dunham Water Garden and Maya Lin's (Courtesy the Obama Foundation)

Late last week, the Obama Foundation announced the newest feature of the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center at historic Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago: a meditative green space, dubbed the Ann Dunham Water Garden in honor of the 44th President’s late mother. The space will be anchored by a sculptural water feature conceived by celebrated Chinese-American designer and sculptor Maya Lin, who, along with Frank Gehry, were among the 21 recipients awarded with the Presidential Medal of Honor from the two-term former president in 2016.

Heralded in an announcement as “one of President Obama’s favorite artists,” the Ohio-born, New York­–based Lin was commissioned by the Obama Foundation to create the permanent installation, dubbed Seeing Through the Universe. The monumental work will feature an “upright ‘oculus’ piece that mists and a flat ‘pebble’ piece that fills with water and then cascades over,” the foundation detailed. The garden itself will be located near the center’s north entrance and is meant as a place for “reflection and relaxation.”

The Ann Dunham Water Garden and its Lin-designed sculpture were both announced on August 4, Obama’s 61st birthday.

“When we thought about what may be a fitting way to commemorate my mother’s influence on my sister and me, I thought about where she would want to be in this space,” said Obama in a statement. “I could picture her sitting on one of the benches on a nice summer afternoon, smiling and watching a bunch of kids running through the fountain, and I thought that would capture who she was as well as just about anything else.

The Ann Dunham Water Garden is the latest public space element to be announced for the Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates–designed Obama Presidential Center campus, which broke ground last September and is slated to open in 2025. The center itself is designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and was subject to heated local controversy—and litigation—during the drawn-out planning stages over its location at the National Register of Historic Places–listed Jackson Park.

Previously announced open public spaces at the campus include John Lewis Plaza, the Eleanor Roosevelt Fruit and Vegetable Garden, and the Hadiya Pendleton Winter Garden, named in memory of the 15-year-old high-schooler who was tragically shot and killed at a Chicago park in 2013, just days after performing at Obama’s second inauguration ceremony as part of a majorette squad.

While the work of Lin’s eponymous design studio spans both architecture and art, permanent and ephemeral, Lin is best known for her contributions to the (highly trafficked) public realm, namely with the National Mall­–adjacent Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Recently announced architectural projects from the studio include the new Lower Manhattan home of The Museum of Chinese in America.