The George W. Bush Presidential Center, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects and located on the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, does not reflect the colorful nature of the 43rd president’s personality. Nor does it symbolically suggest the fact that Bush was the first president of the 21st century. Although the three-story brick-and-limestone building is the first presidential library to contain e-mails—some 200 million—its design is traditional, not contemporary. The 260,560-square-foot structure, which also houses galleries, a museum store, policy institute, restaurant, and 360-seat auditorium, succeeds best as a sedate and sustainable (LEED Platinum–certified) piece of abstracted classical architecture, meant to fit in with SMU’s early-20th-century Georgian Revival buildings.
Freedom Hall, the museum’s central area, is topped by a 67-foot-high limestone-and-glass lantern that dramatically ushers in natural light by day and glows at night. Below the lantern, a 20-foot-high, 360-degree, high-definition LED screen displays changing digital artwork.
The exhibitions promise to keep us pondering, with interactive “What would you have done?” scenarios, historical objects, a re-created Oval Office, and an authentic, reassembled White House Situation Room. Yet the architecture might reveal more about the taste of former librarian and schoolteacher Laura Bush, who was, according to Stern, “the principal client throughout the process.” Her touch can be seen everywhere, including in a Texas-style White House Rose Garden, complete with native plants from the Bushes’ Crawford ranch, and carpets in the institute by Afghan rug company ARZU. The latter were executed as part of the Bush Institute’s Afghan Women’s Project, which the first lady began championing during her husband’s presidential terms.
Laura Bush’s choice of the architect was boosted by recommendations from her design committee, whose members included developer Roland Betts, George W. Bush’s fraternity brother at Yale and co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team with him from 1989 to 1994; family friend Deedie Rose, whose husband, Edward “Rusty” Rose, was also involved in the ownership of the Rangers; and architect and professor Witold Rybczynski, whom the Bushes appointed to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in 2004. Stern is also the dean of the architecture school at Bush’s alma mater. “And SMU is my alma mater,” says Laura Bush. “It was a perfect fit.”
The 15-acre site around the library offered space for the Bushes’ real love, the Texas landscape. Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh teamed up with Stern to create a public park surrounding the building that is expected to mature into a re-created Texas prairie. Stormwater runoff and underground cisterns will irrigate the native grasses, meadows, and indigenous trees.
After eight years of controversial decisions and with the president’s approval rating at 22 percent when he left office, both Bushes perhaps hope the park and the library/museum will encourage visitors to reflect upon his highest actions. “We did not talk about approval ratings,” says Stern of his many discussions with Laura Bush. “This is a building about the dignity of the presidency. It’s designed to bring people back again and again.”