Thursday, August 30, 2007

Meet the President's New Architect...

The George W. Bush Presidential Library has finally chosen its architect, the renowned Robert A. M. Stern from New York. My first impression was of mild disappointment, but that quickly faded to an overall lack of surprise. After all, the library is slated to occupy the eastern edge of the SMU campus, a college whose reputation is deeply tied to culturally conservative elite that dominates the political and social scene of Dallas. The president and his library's planning committee made its intention clear to have the new complex blend with the campus' neo-Georgian architecture, and Mr. Stern has definitely been capable of doing that with his firm's many previous projects on university campuses throughout the country. It was clear just by looking over the shortlist released a few months ago of architects considered by the committee that there was no desire to insert a flashy piece of "starchitecture" in the heart of Dallas (actually, it will within the independent municipality of University Park, which along with high-end Highland Park, form an area called "the bubble".) Rather the list consisted of firms that had reputations as large and successful not for their cutting-edge design as they are for providing consistent satisfaction to their clients. The two other finalists for the library, Overland Partners and Page Southerland Page have solid reputations in Texas, having incorporated a handsomely modern regional vernacular in their large public projects. Neither of those firms could be characterized as part of the contemporary design forefront.

That is not to say the Robert Stern lacks the talent to produce avant-garde projects. In actuality, his incorporation of classical styles and planning principals made him one of the leaders in generating and popularizing the versatile Post-modern style during seventies and eighties. Along with his contemporaries Charles Moore, Michael Graves, Philip Johnson and Robert Venturi, Stern recognized a deep desire in the American marketplace for a return to an intelligible style influenced by past historical vocabularies. After beginning his career working for Richard Meier, Stern formed his own practice and pursued a style that responded to the inherent deficiencies of Modernism by restoring tradition and thus calling it "modern traditionalism". Because traditional modes of architecture developed sophisticated rules of composition and scale appropriate to important institutional buildings, Stern's style was embraced by many civic and institutional clients that desired gentle austerity and symmetry wich would relate to the surrounding context yet exhibit a dignified significance.

Stern's embrace of classicism was a particularly defiant stance to take within the architectural context of the seventies. Complementing the surrounding environment by almost literarily imitating stylistic elements and refusing to celebrate technological sophistication of the times were not the hallmarks of the modern architect. Such a subtle approach was at first courageous, but became the default position of an overwhelming majority commercial and civic clients in the following decades. In 2007, Stern has long ago ceased to be relevant in the ongoing evolution of architectural trends. With exception to school of architecture at Yale, in which Stern is the dean, few architectural schools study his work seriously as they did in the eighties during the heyday of the post-modern experimentation. Although he has demonstrated an ability to wield the Modernist vocabulary in some of his projects, many of my contemporaries consider his work a bit retrograde and cite his commercial success as proof of his disinterest in forging new paths in design theory (this is a common irony inherent within the architect subculture). With a staff of more than three hundred people, it is clear he is no "boutique" architect that offers a specialized solution, but he does manage to provide a high quality design, revealing a respectable academic rigor that enhances what can easily become a lazy historicist pastiche.

Such sober characteristics not only shed light on the overall look the future library but it also reveals a little bit the president's own self regard in the urban realm. In recent decades, presidential libraries have become the contemporary version of an emperor's triumphal arch, a monument to a major leader and a repository of all that leader's accomplishments while in office. Only a few have taken noticeably monumental character, in particular John F Kennedy's by I.M. Pei, Lyndon B. Johnson's by SOM and Bill Clinton's by Polshek & Partners. The LBJ library at the University of Texas at Austin impacts significantly the surrounding cityscape. The overall footprint of the library and the attached school of public administration occupies a sizeable area at the corner of the campus. Clinton's library in Little Rock makes a bold gesture in Little Rock, Arkansas, puncturing the city's waterfront with a cantlivering shiny and sleek box of glass and steel. It's apparent that the Clinton library was intended to become a unique landmark to the city and a focal point of local regeneration of the surrounding neighborhood. But because of its bold character, I can't help but think that somehow Mr. Clinton wants as much attention drawn to himself as possible.

President Bush seems to have made it clear that in trying to complement the existing campus architecture of SMU, his library will probably appear inconspicuous. It will refuse to dominate its surroundings with the contrived visual rupture common in much contemporary civic architecture, and instead will likely opt for a relatively modest facade and a gently monumental scale. Although the library will bel nestled within a campus, its edge location near a regenerating district north of downtown Dallas will engage the urban fabric of the city, drawing parallels with Clinton's library. I suspect that the selection of SMU as the library's location had much to do with the library's potential as an urban catalyst, since the president may have learned from his father's missed opportunity in situating his library on the remote and rural Texas A&M campus in College Station. The Bush library will be an attraction among many in Dallas, not THE attraction had it been located in Waco, Midland, or in Irving, a Dallas suburb. It will strengthen the connection between SMU and the city at large by complementing its impressive Meadows Art Museum, its only other major public draw. Since it is relatively small campus SMU will doubtlessly be affected greatly by the Bush Library, forever changing its somewhat insular character and forcing it to become more open to to the public.

With such ideas in mind, maybe the anticipated classicism that Stern effectively provides is the appropriate tact in such sensitive project. It will lend the library a dignified presence, temper the transition between the larger post-industrial city and the quiet neo-georgian college campus by not punctuated end in itself, which is often the ultimate result in large Modernist civic buildings. It follows, then, that George W. Bush has not intent to make the building a special monument to his personality either. Rather, as Mr. Stern has suggested, the architecture will serve as subdued backdrop to what the ideas and themes the President has championed during the last eight years:

"The president, if he were here, he'd say, 'Eventually people will not be so interested in George W. Bush but they will be interested in the ideas, the forums and debates and things that can occur,' " Mr. Stern said. "So I think he and I are on the absolute same wavelength in that respect."

It seems the president would rather emphasize library's diverse program, which include archives, a learning center and a think-tank, rather than merely generate a uniquely moving impression of grandeur and power. It's quite consistent with aspects of his ranch in Crawford, and says quite a lot about his self-deprecating personality.

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