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Little swagger in plans for Bush presidential library

November 18, 2009 |  1:23 pm

Freedom Plaza 

George W. Bush was a lightning rod of a politician. His presidential library is meant to be anything but.

Architectural plans released today 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, bravado or taste for confrontation that Bush was known for as president.

Designed by New York's Robert A.M. Stern, arguably the country's leading historicist architect, the library is a handsome, contextual piece of architecture wrapped in Texas limestone (which may sound like a euphemism, like "Texas tea," but isn't) and red brick. Though on its main facades it uses classical themes in a mostly abstract way, rather than literally, it is very much meant to complement SMU's predominantly Georgian-style landmarks.

On a tricky site at the eastern edge of the SMU campus, four miles or so north of downtown Dallas and adjacent on one side to an expressway, the library will sit amid a landscape meant to suggest the wide-open Texas prairie -- "Crawford comes to Big D," says David Dillon in the Dallas Morning News -- designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh.

Texas Rose Garden The Van Valkenburgh-Stern pairing suggests some of the complexity of the Bush family brand. George W. Bush was born in Connecticut and grew up the son of a Washington insider and future president; 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 been at pains to identify 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 campus of Texas A&M and was designed by the big corporate firm HOK.) But in Stern and Van Valkenburgh, Bush 43 chose designers well-known for their Northeast, Ivy League credentials.

Or perhaps his wife did. Van Valkenburgh and Stern have both said that Laura Bush was at all stages a highly active participant in the design process. (She was also reportedly a driving force behind the couple's decision to build a highly sustainable house on their ranch in Crawford, Texas.) Mrs. 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.

Despite Laura Bush's comments this morning that the library will be a "modern building," Stern has produced above all a quiet, low-slung design that wears its influences from architectural history easily and proudly.

Institute lobby Stern's decision to take the library commission was controversial among some fellow architects, which isn't surprising given how many of the best-known members of the profession lean leftward politically. But Stern has already spent at least a decade moving against the architectural grain: As the high-design expressionism of architects such as Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel increasingly captivated the media and public during the boom years, Stern was steadfast in his commitment to a well-tailored brand of contextual, often decidedly old-fashioned architecture.

And it's not as though he has been hurting for work. His apartment building at 15 Central Park West in Manhattan has been called "the most lucrative" residential development ever built, racking up sales of more than $2 billion when its units went on the market. His 220-person firm was also the architect of a high-end residential tower in Century City, the Century, which is topped by a two-story penthouse apartment for which Candy Spelling, widow of the TV producer Aaron Spelling, paid $47 million.

Model shot bush 

At SMU, the public will enter Stern's building from the north, moving through a squared-off plaza edged with limestone pillars and into a light-filled, double-height lobby 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 exactly. To the right will be a smaller space for temporary exhibitions. An auditorium will sit below ground, with the presidential archive itself reached by a separate entrance.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Renderings of the George W. Bush Presidential Center's Freedom Plaza, top; Texas Rose Garden, second from top; and Institute Lobby, third from top, courtesy Bush Presidential Center. Model shot of north elevation, bottom, courtesy Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

Comments () | Archives (17)

You're going to need a lot of crayons, plan ahead!

Check out what SMU student reported on the ceremony today.


two hundred fifty million? Why not get Halliburton to build it? Then it could be two hundred fifty billion!

appropriately retrogressive

As for the classically themed facades, George W. Bush himself said it best:

"There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

Brilliant. The architecture is as unremarkable as his presidency.

Dear Mr. Bush,
In reference to your "libary", the entrance takes the stance of a giant spider, with 8 legs and two sets of eyes, ready to poison and suck dry all who wander too close. It's highly aggressive and deceptive.

The message is: If you are unnerved by 43, then you should best stay away; if, on the other hand, you admire the man who embodies the finest that the plutocratic world can offer, then you will feel secure in the air-conditioned and brutal arms of the devourer.

Even more, the oculus in the front hall, the all-seeing eye, gazing down upon the actions of all persons, whether unsuspecting or participatory in the imposition of the watchful omniscience of the state, who may saunter into that mausoleum of the trophies and discarded papers of a reign so homicidal and tight-lipped as to make the Avenidas seem like a talking plushy won from a shooting gallery at the county fair, that oculus, so finely rendered in stone (no ogee lest there be a lesbian reference) is placed in a ceiling so low as to demonstrate in fact that the aspirations of the builders were larger than the budget could allow. Res ipsa loquitur.

Budget problems are almost surely at the center, or "crux" for those who see all through that prism, of the cause for an asymmetrical plan also. Symmetry is correct, right? If there is a room on the right, then you must make room on the left, right? Apparently not for 43's monument: the right took all of the money with nothing for the left.

What more could we expect from an unintelligible dissembler such as you, Mr. Bush, and insipid proctors for conformity such as Messrs. Stern and Van Valkenburgh?

Absolute blindness and and arrogance are displayed in this loathsome design devoid of any message other than a vague reference to 1970s tract housing in the South-east.

Plant some boxwoods and declare yourself victorious just like generations of your progenitors have done. Then go buy yourself an outboard, you'll feel petroleum satisfaction every time you fire that sucker up... just like daddy does.


The last image makes it look like a 1970's high school or prison. Steeped in Meh, and strangely oppressive in its mediocrity.

I think the building looks perfect for Bush... an elementary school building. haha But $275 mil? the Egg dome in Beijing cost 1/2 that to build.

I don't buy the idea that Stearn pushes; that the George Bush's policies are one thing and that chosing to design his librarary is not necessarily an endorsment of it. If thats the case you are selling something you dont necessarily believe in. That makes you a bad arcitect or a liar.

The characture here is telling.


Architecture is really good but $275 million is very big amount.

A man who has class. Thank You.

He never picked up a book in his life, and he gets a library named after him. hmmm

Why the headline? It's silly, biased, immature, highly debatable and irrelevant to an article on architecture in any event. Shame on you.

I would like the opportunity to share a painting with the Bushes. Tarleton Blackwell by African American artist from Manning SC was honored at The White House during the second term of office. He did have the chance to meet Laura Bush bit not The President. He has recently completed quite a satorical painting of Mr. Bush that I feel would be not an insult but anusing to the former Presient. It is currently featured in the Exhibition now on view on the website that I have provided. Please take the opportunity to look at the painting entitled "Bring 'em on 2". The exhibit is featured on the home page and is clickable to all of the paintings and drawings on display.

No sure about the design, but functionality is also very important.

Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan would never accept this design, as styleless, cheerless and mediocre as a 1960s federal building in some remote, deservedly forgotten city. It must be Robert A. M. Stern's least inspired work, whatever the price tag.


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