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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.

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