Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
The Bush Presidential Center will include a library, museum, and think tank.
Upon leaving the White House, few presidents have been as removed from public life as George W. Bush. In September, the Onion could joke that Bush had spent Obama's first term on a spiritual journey in the Himalayas -- because why not? There was hardly evidence to prove otherwise. Aside from a few self-portraits in the shower, we've had precious little insight into how the former president sees himself and his legacy.
This makes today's dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, America's 13th presidential library, uniquely compelling. It's Bush's first public attempt since 2010's Decision Points to grapple with his own legacy, and to convince the historians and academics who so scorned him to do the same. To borrow a few words from Fox Nation, it's a look back at the president who never looked back.
The Center stands on the campus of Southern Methodist University, north of downtown Dallas and not far from the president's home. It's Laura Bush's alma mater, not George's, but that's no surprise: the Bushes have long publicly eschewed their New England connections. (George H.W. Bush's presidential library is also in Texas, at Texas A&M.) Additionally, the Bushes are Methodist, and SMU is both politically and architecturally conservative -- a great match for W, and as it turned out, a decisive choice for the building's design.
Laura Bush has played a key role in crafting the official architectural reflection of the Bush years. For the design of the complex, which includes a library, museum, and think tank, the former first lady chose Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture and America's preeminent post-modernist architect. Stern's red brick and limestone design — typically bland fare, from him — was intended (this was a "very clear" priority of the university president) to fit in seamlessly on SMU's Georgian revival campus. (Stern has a reputation as a conservative architect; in fact, he told the Dallas Morning News, he voted for Bush, too.)
"I wanted it to have the Texas feel that this building does because that's where we're from," Laura Bush told the AP last week. "I also wanted the building to be modern-looking, to be forward-looking because George was president during the very first decade of our new century."
On the first count, she has certainly succeeded. Many of the building materials are locally sourced -- Texas Cordova Cream limestone, pecan paneling, mesquite floors. The Bushes are passionate about sustainable architecture, and the Center has reflective roofs, solar panels, and the infrastructure to harvest rainwater. It is LEED Platinum-certified. The 15-acre landscape park is a particularly fitting tribute to a president who always seemed most at ease bushwhacking in the woods around his Crawford ranch. Again, the Bushes (and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh) bend their will to the land, with native prairie grasses, seasonal wildflowers, and a Texas rose garden.
But forward-looking? It's hard to find any elements of the design that point forward, or even quasi-contemporaneously to the Bush presidency. Instead the complex points back to the Italian architecture of the 1930s, with its austere bands of right angles. Back to the heavy, brick-walled factories of New England mill towns. And also further back, to the stacked colonnades of Egypt's Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Proportionally, the entrance has something in common with Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Schauspielhaus, too.
But then Stern prides himself on a sort of timelessness. Like many of his buildings, this one is nothing to write home about, and that probably suits the Bushes just fine. After a presidency as polarizing as they come, the Bush Center is the opposite of divisive. Perhaps the worst that can be said is that Freedom Hall, the glass and limestone lantern that caps off the building, bears a resemblance to a prison watchtower.
Inside the exhibition hall, the centerpiece will be a hulking, two-ton scrap of steel. It looks like the work of John Chamberlain, but its Islamic-inspired arch pattern was actually designed by Minoru Yamasaki. It is a piece of impact metal — the part the plane actually hit — from the facade of the Twin Towers. I'll leave it to you to think about how that will shape the experience of Ph.D. students who come here to sift through the various memos from the wars that followed.
There will also be authentic Florida ballot chad from the 2000 election on display, and the museum will feature an interactive "Decision Points Theater," where visitors can put themselves through some of the more challenging moments of the Bush administration. Afterward, they can review some of the 43,000 objects given to the Bushes by Americans and foreign heads of state or visit a replica of the Oval Office.
If you're hoping to see an exhibit on the administration's thoughts on torture, you will be disappointed. But these things can change with time: it's practically a tradition for presidents to renovate their own libraries once the institution of their successor has opened. That's what George H.W. Bush did when the William J. Clinton Presidential Center opened in 2004, and it's what staffers in Little Rock expect Clinton to do after today. (After the 2004 opening, Clinton was criticized for minimizing the Lewinsky scandal and the saga of his impeachment.)
With each renovation, presidential libraries have a tendency to grow more objective. The Nixon Presidential Library and Museum now has a Watergate exhibit, for example, where you can listen to President Nixon order chief of staff H.R. Haldemann to raid the Brookings Institution.
What's less likely to change is the earthy, "Texas Modern" look of the Bush Center, designed for a president who wants to see himself as both warm and firm, as a compassionate conservative and of course, as the decider.
Photos courtesy of the George W. Bush Center.