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The George W. Bush Presidential Library Is So … Conservative

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. (Click here for a slideshow of the library.) 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.

Such is the case with the Bush Library, a 225,000 square foot affair that will sit on a 22-acre site to be completed in 2013, at a cost of between $200 and $500 million. As is a common feature of recent presidential libraries, the multiplicity of functions results in a multiform structure, which, in the present case, changes character and effect depending upon the angle from which you see it.

The grand entrance promises to be appropriately grand, a rectilinear study in red-brick with pale granite accents. It is conceived as two pillared and porticoed wings on either side of a central structure crowned by an inviting loggia. The reverse side of the building, also clad entirely in red-brick, strikes a decidedly more domestic tone. Slightly dowdy, to judge from the drawings, it vaguely recalls, in its emphatic horizontality, the Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright. At the same time, however, some parts of the building, especially the Texas Rose Garden, will be adorned with pale Doric columns that bring to mind the idiom in which James Hoban conceived The White House.

The one interior rendering I have seen promises a soberly granitic foyer, whose ceiling is pierced by a banistered oculus that looks as though it might be quite fun. As with most architectural renderings these days, this one includes a few humans, but in a way that is inadvertently humorous. Overwhelmingly male and entirely pale, they look, in their buttoned down ties and gray suits, like the living equivalent of the building itself. You could well believe that they are on their way to an editorial meeting of The Wall Street Journal. And you already know for whom they voted in the past 20 presidential elections.