DALLAS — What do neo-classicism and neo-conservatism have in common?
That's the question at the heart of the design by New York's Robert A.M. Stern Architects for the George W. Bush presidential library, set to open to the public May 1 on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
The $250-million complex holds the president's archive as well as a museum, restaurant, auditorium, policy institute and foundation. Officially known as the George W. Bush Presidential Center, it is carefully and cannily contextual, like much of Stern's work.
Its wide and low-slung form, sunk into a modest hill and ranging from one to three stories high, is wrapped in red brick and cream-colored limestone in an effort to match SMU's Collegiate Georgian buildings. Covering 226,000 square feet, the center is set on a 23-acre piece of land on the eastern edge of campus, about five miles north of downtown Dallas.
With its stripped-down exterior and spacious central plaza leading to its main public entrance, the building owes a clear debt to the work of Dallas architect George Dahl. In particular it evokes Dahl's 1965 Owen Arts Center at SMU, which is also clad in brick and limestone and represents a surprisingly happy marriage of modern architecture and historically minded contextualism.
In fact, the Bush Center shows Stern mining familiar neo-classical territory but also working at (or near) his least decorative; in person the building has a spare, direct and tight-lipped quality that doesn't fully register in photographs.
That very character also links the complex to Bush's political legacy.
Stern's architecture is always steeped in strategic references to past landmarks; there is no doubt he knows how to send, and shape, an architectural message. And the message the front entrance to the Bush Library delivers is clear: This is a building meant to honor a particularly blunt and plain-spoken kind of political power.
Indeed, anyone who has read Bush's 2010 White House memoir, "Decision Points," will notice in Stern's design all sorts of echoes of the 43rd president's approach. The architecture of the complex, like the cadence of that book, is stripped down and unadorned.
The building, like the Bush presidency, aims to stay resolute even at the expense of some nuance. Perhaps the emblematic line of that presidency, after all, came in early 2002, not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Bush said, "You're either with us or against us; you're either evil or you're good."
"America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause," Bush said in his second inaugural address. "My most solemn duty is to protect this nation and its people against further attacks and emerging threats. Some have unwisely chosen to test America's resolve and have found it firm."
The resolve of Stern's architecture here is also unyielding, and in certain spots excessively so. This is especially true in the public entrance plaza, with its three-sided colonnade of squared-off pillars.
This outdoor room has unavoidable and frankly unnerving connections to the architecture of muscular state power. It has echoes, fairly faint but altogether present, of authoritarian landmarks of a much grander scale, among them the 1959 National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the buildings Adalberto Libera and other architects designed for Benito Mussolini in Rome.
The building is more approachable, a bit softer and certainly more polished inside. Doors and windows are framed in bronze, and the floors are gleaming Tunisian limestone.
Just past the ticket desk, visitors will move into the building's architectural heart: a double-height gathering space called Freedom Hall. It is lined on its upper walls with high-definition video screens and, above that, a coffered wooden ceiling. From the outside this space reads as a tower, or beacon, the only vertical form in an otherwise horizontal building.
The museum, holding exhibits on the Bush presidency designed by Virginia-based PRD Group, covers 43,000 square feet. It includes a full-scale replica of the Oval Office that opens onto a Texas Rose Garden. On its upper level, the complex holds an apartment available for use by the Bush family.
The building empties on the back into spacious public garden by the landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, which slopes down toward a noisy stretch of freeway. Seen from the garden, the complex is a good deal bulkier and less coherently organized than it looks as you face the main entrance.
The western façade, facing the SMU campus and holding the entrance to the Bush Institute, is marked by a squared-off, double-height limestone portico. It overlooks, among other buildings, the 2001 Meadows Museum by the Chicago firm Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge, another exercise in red-brick contextualism but one that is a good deal frillier than Stern's design.
Any presidential library is a curious architectural blend of biography and autobiography. The president has a say in how it turns out — and in this case so does the president's wife, since Laura Bush was an active participant in the design process. The architect has a say. The National Archives, which will run the library and museum, and the host university have a say.
And what emerges, finally, is an image, necessarily imperfect, of a president in architectural form.
Whatever you make of Stern's architectural sensibility, give him this much: His design for the Bush library is an unapologetically direct portrait of a controversial president and his political personality.
You might find it overly nostalgic for a simpler political and cultural past — or a bit too credulous of the idea that a decisive president is a serious-minded president.
But the architectural bottom line is plain to see. You don't have to squint, or read between the lines, to make it out.
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