James Gardner: The George W. Bush Presidential Library Is So … Conservative

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[James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, now writes on culture for several publications.]

To put the matter politely, presidential libraries tend not to inspire very good architecture. One generalization that can be made about the twelve libraries already in existence is that they tend to err on the side of dullness, like the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda and the Bush 41 Library in Texas. And when the architects reach for edginess, they come up with a tame composite of all the newest clichés of the moment; consider the brutalism of LBJ’s library or the drab curtainwalls in the building that honors Gerald Ford. The good side of that equation is that, as architectural typologies go, these libraries are rarely downright awful. Also, because they usually inhabit the outskirts of cities, they are able to expand horizontality over a fairly generous allotment of land.

A few days ago, some preliminary plans were unveiled for the George W. Bush Library, to be built on the campus of Southern Methodist University in University Park, near Dallas. To judge from the renderings, this new project, which will also house the George W. Bush Policy Institute and the offices of the George W. Bush Foundation, is revealingly different from its immediate predecessor, the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. There is a hard-edged and unapologetic modernity to the Clinton Library, designed by Richard Olcott of the New York-based Polshek Partnership. Though some (including Clinton himself) have compared this long and rectangular structure to a double-wide trailer, with all its unsavory associations, the building still achieves a certain elegance, presence, and functionality.

It is surely not accidental that the new Bush Library is to be designed by Robert A. M. Stern, also of New York. Whether Stern is or is not conservative himself, the contextualism he represents has endeared him to people who incline towards a certain establishmentarian traditionalism. The dean of the Yale School of Architecture, he is one of the few living architects to earn the respect of his colleagues by working in an historicist, or as he would have it, “contextualist” idiom. In practice this means that—a few modernist buildings aside—he and his colleagues opt for a largely classical articulation of structure that usually results in a good deal of columns and red brick...

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