Part archive, part history museum, part propaganda machine, the presidential library is a unique federal institution that is reinvented with each passing administration. Unlike the boldly modernist Clinton Presidential Library, designed by Polshek Partnership, Robert A. M. Stern, who was recently selected to design the George W. Bush Presidential Library on the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, is expected to deliver a building “that will fit into the vernacular of the campus,” according to Taylor Griffin, spokesman for the selection committee. SMU’s campus, the alma mater of Laura Bush, is defined by its red brick Georgian architecture. “There is no design at this point,” Stern said, “but the desire is to make something that is appropriate for the campus.”
According to University of Louisville art historian Benjamin Hufbauer, author of Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory, since the mid-twentieth century Democrats have tended to favor high profile architects such as I. M. Pei (Kennedy) and Gordon Bunshaft (Johnson), while Republicans have favored less well-known local or regional firms. “In that sense the selection is something of a reversal, as Stern is one of the country’s most prominent architects,” he said.
The firm was selected over Texas-based OverlandPartnersandthe LawrenceW.Speck studio of Page Southerland Page, though other sources have reported that Pelli Clarke Pelli,HOK,Beck Architecture, Lake/Flato,and Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge all received the RFQ. The selection committee, which was chaired by Laura Bush, included critic and historian Witold Rybczynski and developer Roland Betts. “Robert Stern brings the experience and expertise to build a great library, and his firm met all the criteria the committee were looking for,” said Griffin.
The Library has generated controversy on two fronts. Nearby residents filed a lawsuit claiming they sold their properties to the university for less than market value due to the threatened use of eminent domain.SMU prevailed in the lawsuit. Griffin said that the final site for the library has not been selected and that though the committee is in “exclusive talks with SMU,” Baylor University remains a possible host institution as well. In addition, some SMU faculty members have protested the inclusion of a partisan think tank, modeled on the Hoover Institution at Stanford, in the building’s program. “It promises to be the most ideologically charged presidential library ever built,” said Hufbauer.
Stern called the Library a “career defining project,” but is unconcerned about the President’s low approval ratings. “One doesn’t have to be a Roman Catholic to design a beautiful Catholic church,” he said, “but one must have respect for the institution of Roman Catholicism.”