Wednesday, November 18, 2009

George W. Bush Presidential Center design is unveiled

The design of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU, which will be formally unveiled today, is a showcase for exhibits, not a monument to the 43rd president, former first lady Laura Bush said this week.

In an exclusive interview with The Dallas Morning News, Bush described an active year of planning the design for a 225,000-square-foot building to house her husband's presidential papers. Bush said the library center, which will include a museum and a policy institute, will not be a shrine.

"One of the things we discussed with all of the design team was that we did not want this to be monumental like some other libraries are," Bush said. "We're very aware that the presidents are men. They are people. We wanted it to be human in scale."

New York-based architect Robert A.M. Stern, agreed: "It doesn't say anything specific about President Bush. It's not a portrait or a defense of his policies. It is about the presidency, the dignity of the office."

The design debut is the latest of several signs that the Bushes are venturing back into the spotlight after a relatively quiet year in Dallas. Last week, they filled an auditorium with 1,000 supporters to announce plans for the Bush Institute, the policy arm of the library center. The institute will begin hosting forums on campus next semester, even before construction begins.

The Bushes' presidential aura at the event drew national headlines and provided a temporary distraction from the difficulties of trying to build the library in a dense and congested area. It will be on a tract of land on the eastern edge of SMU at North Central Expressway.

The Bush Foundation, which is raising money to pay for the project, must get University Park officials to rezone the library land – over the objections of some nearby residents – to proceed with construction. Residents have raised concerns about traffic and parking lots situated to the north of the library.

And Southern Methodist University is still in court battling for title to a sliver of land south of the library, where grounds are planned. Both sides say they are trying to reach a settlement of the four-year lawsuit.

Assuming the legal and zoning hurdles are cleared, there's still the matter of the land itself. It's on the edge of campus, with the main access planned from Central's service road.

Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh called the site an "albatross."

But Laura Bush said situating the archive, museum and institute on the pie-shaped tract next to Central Expressway was not as difficult as it may seem. The National Archives, which will operate the library and museum, has ironclad rules about setbacks and other matters.

"It was not difficult. Those security rules are just a fact of life," she said. "You just know that that's what it is."

The library design has evolved, with Laura Bush working to produce a building that reflects the 43rd president's Texas roots and sensibilities.

Limestone at the base of the building is from Midland, where the Bushes met and married. Van Valkenburgh, the landscape architect, was selected because Laura Bush enjoyed working with him on the Pennsylvania Avenue plaza in front of the White House.

The land south of the library building will be reminiscent of a prairie, not unlike 50 acres of native prairie the Bushes have reclaimed on their Crawford ranch.

The building itself is compatible with SMU's Georgian architecture but contemporary in style.

"I think it's a forward building, a modern building, which I wanted it to be since George was president during the first decade" of the century, Laura Bush said.

Visitors will pass a limestone retaining wall as they proceed into the building and enter a grand hall. From there, they'll be able to see an inner courtyard.

The library includes space for permanent and temporary exhibits, and a small auditorium. There will also be classrooms and offices for fellows at the Bush Institute. Both the former president and his wife will have office space upstairs, along with a dining and living area for entertaining museum guests.

The experience is designed to counter "museum fatigue" by allowing visitors to wander into a courtyard or an outdoor model of the White House Rose Garden once they are in the building.

The Bush Foundation hopes to raise $300 million by the time groundbreaking is scheduled in about a year. So far, it's reported to have raised more than $200 million. The names of donors have not been released, but officials say none of the money has come from foreign contributors.

The National Archives will operate the library and museum. The Bush Foundation will operate the institute, which will host visiting scholars, conduct research and convene seminars.

Architecture critic David Dillon contributed to this report.

By LORI STAHL / The Dallas Morning News