Mark Lamster | Essays

The Bush Library

Photo: G.J. McCarthy, Dallas Morning News

My first review as architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News ran this past weekend, an examination of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. The complex houses three functions — a library, a museum, and a policy institute. The design is by Bob Stern, with landscaping and an attached park by Michael Van Valkenburgh. As I write:.
When George W. Bush arrived in the nation’s capital in the winter of 2000, he did so promising an era of “compassionate conservatism.” Some 13 years later, that same impulse toward a soothing and restorative traditionalism animates the design of his presidential library....Set back behind an expansive lawn of native grasses and a colonnaded courtyard, the George W. Bush Presidential Center presents a sober, foursquare face to the world, as if it were trying to be both monumental and modest at once. Designed by New York architect Robert A.M. Stern, it seems decidedly undecided about its place in the world, trading in the language of architectures past while claiming, without much conviction, the mantle of the present. Everywhere competent, it nowhere rises to a level of inspiration.
Beyond aesthetics, my central concern about this project is the close and unhealthy proximity in which it places the federally administered presidential archive and a public policy institute, which is independent. 

The piece concludes:
“The mixture of architecture and ideology makes for a powerful but dangerous cocktail,” Stern wrote recently. From the outset, the idea at the Bush Center seems to have been to take the sting out of the drink, a perhaps futile gesture. In practice, its conservative dress is as deceptive as it is compassionate, cloaking a hulking core in a historicist skin. While Dallas rushes headlong into the future, the Bush Center seems stuck in a past of its own invention. 
I should note here that the quote is drawn from Stern's introduction to the recently re-published Albert Speer monograph authored by Leon Krier. In addition to the review, I also conducted an interview with Stern regarding the design. A sample:
How would you describe your architecture?
I’m a modern traditionalist.

What does that mean?
I like to look back to traditions — not only the way things looked in the past, but how they were composed and conceptualized, and then address contemporary problems based on that understanding and knowledge. This is not a building that has a full panoply of classical motifs. But it is a building that has the discipline of classical architecture. I would like to think that it speaks to this moment but also much longer into the future. There are many buildings that are up to the minute, but the minute goes, the clock ticks, and sometimes buildings are trapped in their moment.

Why do you think the Bushes selected you?
I think I was chosen because I have a pretty good working knowledge of history, American history especially; I have a sense that a building is not about me but is about the purpose of the building; and I have an ability to make buildings that have high integrity but are also accessible to a lot of people. This is a building where people will come in pickup trucks and RVs. It’s a building for the American people as a whole, and so it has to be understood and appreciated by a wide and diverse public. President Bush may be a controversial figure, but he has enormous affection in a wide number of people in America.
To state the obvious, this has been a challenging and controversial project. I was especially pleased that it was featured prominently "above the fold" on the front page of the Sunday paper. That speaks to the importance of the project in the city, but also to a general interest in architectural criticism here, and that is a very good thing indeed. 


Posted in: Architecture, Media

Comments [8]

It's a strange coincidence that this building odd echoes of Speer's buildings--the square columns, classical blockiness. 'Traditional modern' is a meaningless label that could describe any building post 1950.

I've never been a fan of the school of thought that design exists in spite of its purposes. Yes, shape and form are the basic design elements, but once in motion and animated, they become ethical. A Bush library, like Speer architecture, haunted house or any combination of letters echo with history. If you help mold the legacy and history of a person and what they stand for, you better own it.
Brian J. McKnight

more mussolini modernist sans the marble and art, and more importantly the civic power and scale?
therefore appropriate to satisfy Brian's last sentence

I've got to tell you, more than any other historic precedent, what struck me in the above image of the Bush Library, with its general low-slung rectangles loosely organized around a squat central tower, is the eerie resemblance to another Texas architectural assemblage, no longer with us, that was just down the road in Waco: the Branch Davidian Compound.
Mr. Downer

Not on My Watch
As Bob Stern puts it, ‘not every building should knock ones eyes out, there is a value in the second glance’ but upon close examination of the construction video and the ‘placemaking’ lighting at the end of the video we observe an important element in the design is missing. The ‘symbolic heart’ of the building, the squared limestone lantern that rises above Freedom Hall is ‘ominously’ dark, and it is the darkness transforms the lantern into what you describe as a ‘panoptic watchtower’. Thank you for all of your research Mark. Another great post!

Carl W. Smith

The monumental/modesty in this is much more apparent then it is in the Clinton Library which is neither, for better or worse. I can't wait for the Obama library--since it will be in Chicago, I'm betting on Gang building a South side library.

The entrance of this library pretty nice, as is the courtyard and atrium space. Though I agree with Stern's use of classical/modern spatial unfolding--which is much better then formal theatrics and spectacle--there's many more architects who do that better. Stern always looks a bit too much like Venturi--purposefully bland.
Ed Nai

Stern is an interesting reminder of the classical styles built today that don't get much attention from the press. I'm not sure if it's distinctly American though. There has always been a dialogue between American architecture with Europe and Asia, since colonial times to modernism to today. Though it's hard to duplicate classical detailing in a modern industry--probably why the columns here are blank.
There are many more architects today working in modernism but with traditional values that don't use classical orders but are still pretty similar. There does seem to be a huge gap in the design press when it comes to most of the built world.
R. Mackintosh

Good grief, the man never read a book or entered a library. Talk about an empty edifice.
NM design

Have to admit that this building seems to be growing on me. . . it feels so dirty to say so though.

The entrance, simple columns, and atrium space all look quite nice. However, where it goes wrong for me is that brick rest of the building. It screams 'my 1950s high school.'
Dan the Man

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