A presidential library with modest virtues
Low profile distinguishes Robert A.M. Stern's design for Bush Center in Dallas

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009

Love him or hate him, George W. Bush presided over one of the noisiest presidencies in history. There were debates over wars of necessity and wars of choice, alarm and rancor over ballooning budgets and new social entitlements, a bold mix of political and religious rhetoric, and the projection of American power into places where it was largely unwanted. The Bush years, on a decibel meter, are up there with a NASCAR rally.

Which makes the cool, quiet and dignified design of his presidential library -- unveiled in Dallas on Wednesday -- a rather odd architectural postscript to eight dramatic years of governance. Architect Robert A.M. Stern's plans for the George W. Bush Presidential Center call for a low-slung building of brick and limestone, following traditional lines and hugging the Texas landscape with a calm reserve. It's almost as if Bush has chosen to retreat into the patrician reticence of his blue-blooded, Connecticut forebears.

The library, with groundbreaking scheduled for November 2010 and an estimated cost of $250 million, will be built on the campus of Southern Methodist University and will house public exhibition space, a mock-up of the Oval Office, a conference center with 364-seat auditorium, and separate entry and offices for scholars. Visitors will enter through Freedom Hall, emblazoned with an American flag on its ceiling and capped by a square glass box that allows natural light to flow in.

Freedom Hall is about the only gesture to the fetish for branding architectural elements that clutters so many of today's public buildings with meaningless labels. The American flag is a rare flourish in a structure designed to sit easily and unobtrusively on the landscape, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh. It is all self-consciously attuned to and consonant with the SMU campus, a hyper-dignified collection of buildings with porticos and white columns that look as if they were designed by Thomas Jefferson unconstrained by a budget.

A study in contrasts

Compare this with the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, the shape of which recalls the 42nd president's tediously repeated "bridge to the 21st century" metaphor. Created by Polshek Partnership, the Clinton library is a flashy, contemporary confection of aluminum and glass, with dramatic cantilevers and a high-tech gloss. Although Polshek's work in Washington has tended to the empty and meretricious (e.g., the Newseum and desperately flawed plans for a visitor center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial), the library for Clinton achieved the brass ring of all too many architectural endeavors: instant iconic status.

Stern, by contrast, is all about context, historical reference and carefully calculated detail. As one of the earliest and most insightful analysts of the architectural styles that succeeded modernism, Stern was often lumped in with the postmodernists. Much of his portfolio, which includes the tallest building in Philadelphia (the Comcast Center) and a passel of retro libraries and academic buildings, is utterly unmemorable, filled with reconfigurations of basic architectural forms clad in familiar stone or brick, with unapologetic reference to traditional ornament. But he has never aimed for, or achieved, the vivid banality of the movement he helped to define. And he is full of surprises, such as the bristling modernity of his federal courthouse in Richmond, which looks like it could withstand a nuclear blast without a scratch on its flawless surface.

Stern is the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, and it's tempting to read something into that, as if Bush were reconnecting with his (and his father's) alma mater. Banished from the library that will memorialize him (and all presidential libraries are living sepulchers) is the strident populism, the lazy drawl and the bellicose posturing that so irked his critics. The most salient architectural element has nothing to do with the basic shape or profile of the building, but rather its internal and external systems. The library will be built to the highest environmental standards -- a platinum rating on the popular LEED standards system -- with recycled and locally sourced materials, solar hot-water panels and an efficient system to capture and reuse rainwater.

And so the environmental sensitivity that many Bush partisans mocked in figures such as Al Gore is now built into the Bush presidential library, which isn't necessarily an inconsistency. It feels more like a belated and now safe embrace of a design sophistication characteristic of Bush's social class.

On Wednesday, Bush thanked Stern for "a building and landscape that will capture the dignity of the office of the presidency." Notice how even the language underplays Bush the man in favor of Bush the temporary holder of the sacred electoral franchise. This was accompanied by the release of watercolor renderings that literally dilute and soften the presence of the building.

A vote for modesty

Is it a great building? Robert Stern doesn't design great buildings, at least in the sense of buildings that are bold and memorable, that carry on the dialectic and drama of the grand tradition of architecture. His work is a pause in that tradition, a bracket within the forward-driving discourse of architectural history. They are buildings for people who have grown tired of architecture with a capital A.

But Stern's work, in retrospect, often seems like the ideal solution to a particular problem. In this case, there are two problems that have been well solved. The first is the difficulty of characterizing Bush in architecture without parody or aggrandizement. What other style would have worked? Brutalism? A glass box? A neoclassical pile in the Washington style? Bush was so full of contradictions, so seemingly hostile to the very things that define most important architects -- intellectual sophistication, metaphorical games, aesthetic refinement -- that it's hard to imagine a more meaningful building ever fitting him comfortably.

But there is a second, more important problem that is solved here, at least temporarily: Democracies shouldn't be in the business of building great monuments to living leaders. This isn't just symbolic. Bold, architecturally assertive buildings very often cost big bucks, and it's easy to imagine an endless game of historical one-upmanship as library follows library. While that might produce interesting buildings, it would also further extend the corrupting influence of money in politics, as future presidents become ever more beholden through the very end of their terms, and well into their retirement, to deep-pocketed donors.

No matter what the final cost of this project, Stern has injected modesty into the typology of the presidential library. For now, we have suspended a dangerous game: The association of grand architectural projects with democratically elected leaders, which is something best left to the French.

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