Two in the Bush

Two in the Bush

Stern’s classic building plays off Van Valkenburgh’s rolling, bucolic landscape.
Courtesy George W. Bush Presidential Center

On November 18, Robert A.M. Stern and Michael Van Valkenburgh joined former first lady Laura Bush at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas to unveil their design for the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Situated on a 23-acre site at the southwest corner of SMU’s campus, the 230,000-square-foot center will contain facilities for the presidential archive, a museum, and a policy institute.

Nestled in a landscape of Texas oaks and wildflowers, the building’s brick walls and limestone trim respond to the American Georgian character of the university. This traditional shell, however, conceals a high-tech heart: The archive will feature the most advanced systems for electronic communication preservation of any presidential library to date, and the building itself is striving for a LEED Platinum rating with a range of sustainable design strategies.

The library and institute have a more formal face on the SMU campus.

Winning the job involved answering a fairly standard request for qualifications, followed by an interview with the first lady, who is in charge of the design committee responsible for the project. Other members of the committee include Roland Betts, founder of Chelsea Piers; philanthropist Deedie Rose; and Gerald Turner, president of SMU, but both Stern and Van Valkenburgh credited Mrs. Bush with giving the design process its focus. “She is a wonderful person,” Stern told AN. “She’s smart, visual, a clear thinker, and she’s out to move the project in the best possible direction.”

Van Valkenburgh had similar praise for the first lady, whom he first worked with while redesigning Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. “One of the reasons I was interested in the job is because she is a first-rate human being and a superior client,” he said. The landscape architect was less certain about working with Stern, however, and requested a work agreement directly with the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation. “It’s just better if the architect is your co-equal in the design process,” he said. “It probably wasn’t necessary. Working with Stern has been unbelievably enjoyable. They really like landscape in their office. They have ideas, but aren’t prescriptive.”

The grounds include the "Texas Rose Garden," drawing on the original at the White House.

Among its antecedents in the world of presidential libraries, the Bush Center will stand out as one of the few that contains the archive, museum, and policy institute all in the same building. Stern pointed out that the Clinton library in Arkansas has its companion institute in a separate building, and while the Kennedy library was intended to be linked with its school of government, they now sit at opposite ends of Boston.

At the Bush Center these functions will have dedicated entrances—scholars and the general public will enter from a courtyard on the north side of the building, while the institute entrance will occupy the west—and their programs on the interior will remain separate, but at certain points it will be possible to open the spaces up to each other for special events. The Bush Center will also be the only presidential library to feature a public restaurant, which will sit outside of the security cordon and spill out onto a terrace in the garden.

The Bush Center, unlike its antecedents, includes a library, archive, and policy institute (above) all under one roof.

This spirit of casual openness is an integral part of the landscape design. Van Valkenburgh took inspiration from President Bush’s frequent appearances in Crawford. “I always found his connection to the outdoors to be genuine,” he said. “I like that about him. I liked how comfortable he looked in the Texas White House.”

As opposed to the rigidly structured lawns of the SMU campus, the Bush Center’s landscape will be more informal, featuring rolling meadows and native plantings, as well as an amphitheater, courtyards, and tree-shaded lawns. The site’s urban location will make it easily accessible to the public. “One of the things Mrs. Bush said inspired her was that this landscape will not be fenced,” said Van Valkenburgh. “It will not be private. It will act as central park for this neighborhood in Dallas.”