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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Bush presidential library takes a restrained stance

November 19, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

As a politician, George W. Bush was never afraid to be a lightning rod. His presidential library will be anything but.

Plans released Wednesday for the $250-million, 225,000-square-foot George W. Bush Presidential Center, to be built at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, carry no hint of the swagger or bravado Bush was known for during two terms in the White House.

Designed by New York's Robert A.M. Stern, this country's leading producer of well-tailored architectural nostalgia, the library promises instead to be a handsome, contextual building wrapped in Texas limestone -- which is not a euphemism, like "Texas Tea," but an honest-to-goodness building material -- and red brick. Though it is flat-roofed and largely free of ornament, it clearly aims to complement SMU's existing copper-domed landmarks, which are mostly designed in the Georgian style.

The center -- holding a museum, archive and policy institute -- will rise alongside a gently rolling garden designed by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh and meant to suggest the wide-open Texas prairie. ("Crawford comes to Big D," quipped David Dillon in the Dallas Morning News.) The 23-acre site is hardly ideal; Van Valkenburgh, in fact, has called it "an albatross." Roughly four miles north of downtown Dallas, it lies at the far eastern edge of the SMU campus, right up against the North Central Expressway.

The Van Valkenburgh-Stern pairing in Dallas suggests some of the complexity of the Bush family brand. George W. Bush was born in New Haven, Conn., and grew up the son of a Washington insider and future president (and the grandson of a senator from Connecticut); he was an undergraduate at Yale, where Stern is dean of the architecture school, and went on to earn an MBA at Harvard, where Van Valkenburgh is a professor and former chair of the landscape architecture department.

In his adult life and his political career, of course, Bush has clearly identified himself as a Texan. And when it came time to pick the site of his presidential library he hardly seemed to hesitate in going with SMU. (His father's library, completed in 1997, is on the Texas A&M campus in College Station and was designed by the firm HOK.) But in Stern and Van Valkenburgh, Bush chose designers known for their Northeast, Ivy League credentials.

Or perhaps his wife did. Van Valkenburgh, who worked with Laura Bush in redesigning a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, has echoed Stern in saying that she was at all stages an active participant in the library design process. (She was also reportedly a driving force behind the couple's decision to build an eco-friendly house at their ranch in Crawford, Texas, -- an architectural choice the president did not exactly trumpet publicly.) Laura Bush chaired the Bush Library's design committee, which also included the developer Roland Betts and Witold Rybczynski, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and architecture critic for Slate, among others.

Stern's decision to take the library commission has been controversial -- particularly among fellow architects, which isn't surprising given how many of the profession's best-known members lean to the left politically. But Stern has already spent years moving against the architectural grain: As the high-design expressionism of architects such as Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel captivated the media and public during the boom years of the last decade, Stern remained steadfast in his commitment to superbly appointed contextualism.

And it's not as though he has been hurting for work or facing rejection in the marketplace. His apartment building at 15 Central Park West in Manhattan racked up sales of roughly $2 billion when its units went on the market two years ago. His 220-person firm is also the architect of a high-end residential tower nearing completion in Century City, the Century, which is topped by a two-story penthouse for which Candy Spelling, widow of the TV producer Aaron Spelling, paid $47 million.

At SMU, the public will approach Stern's building from the north, moving from a squared-off plaza edged with limestone pillars into a foyer with a coffered ceiling before reaching a light-filled, double-height entry room called Freedom Hall. In a long wing to the left will be the permanent exhibit galleries, including a replica of the Oval Office and, outside, a Texas Rose Garden meant to match the original almost petal for petal. To the right will be a smaller space for temporary exhibitions. An auditorium and offices for the Bush Institute will be one level below, with the presidential archive itself reached by a separate entrance.

Laura Bush has called the library "modern." Despite its flat roofs and generally muted approach to decoration, however, what Stern has produced above all is a quiet, low-slung design that wears its architectural traditionalism proudly and easily. It is faintly moderne, maybe, but not modern.

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