In late August, after much speculation, the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation chose Robert A.M. Stern, the prominent New York architect and dean of the Yale School of Architecture, to design the 43rd president's official library and policy institute. Stern was selected by a five-member committee comprising first lady Laura Bush, New York financier Roland Betts, Texas philanthropist Deedie Rose, architecture critic Witold Rybczynski, and Marvin Bush, the president's youngest brother. Choosing both an architect and a site has been beset by controversy, owing to the increasing unpopularity of the Bush administration. The site has yet to be finalized, but the foundation has been in exclusive negotiations with Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Laura Bush's alma mater. Once the location is secured, fundraising for the project—expected to cost at least $200 million—will begin. ARCHITECT spoke with Stern about his new client, his plans for the project, and the controversy surrounding it.
Congratulations. You've had quite a distinguished career. How does it feel to be designing for the president? This is really special. I've had many wonderful clients and many famous clients, but the president of the United States is at the top of the list.
What are your first impressions about this president as an architectural client? Well, we're not too far along yet, so it's hard to say, but he is definitely open to exploring new ideas and to making something special. And it's not just Bush who is open. I am also open to exploring what is the exact, correct building with the right dignity and character for this project.
Do you have any preliminary concepts in mind? No, it's really too early for that. We need to wait until the site is finalized. But we're thinking of at least two buildings, one for the library and museum and the other for the policy institute. The National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees the library and museum, has very rigorous standards to maintain the purity of the archives. So we will separate it from the institute. We have also thought about a small campus of buildings.
This commission has stirred up criticism from people who believe that you are essentially celebrating an unpopular president. Do you see this project in any way as an endorsement—even a tacit one—of his policies? Look, I'm an architect, not a political commentator. Last time I checked, he was the twice-elected president of the United States. Even if it is controversial, we still need to preserve the papers of a twice-elected president. Scholars will be able to interpret and reinterpret what went on, and his intellectual colleagues can continue to explore their way of thinking. He has high aspirations that leading political figures from around the world will be able to come there to study. And remember that most presidents are controversial and unpopular at times, but each of these people is the president, and each deserves a library.
Have you been looking at presidential library precedents? Yes, I have. Of all of them, none is more moving than [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt's. It's small and intimate in scale, but powerful. He was also controversial during his presidency.
What about the others? Many of them are big and bombastic. Quite a few have been dull. With Bush, there will be no bombast or boredom. And this is the only one truly in the city. They are mostly out in rural or suburban settings. Even [John F. Kennedy's] is out by Columbia Point, outside of Boston, so it's inaccessible. Bush's will be at Southern Methodist University, right in the middle of Dallas. It will be at the edge of the campus, next to a light-rail stop, so it's highly accessible. This is a totally different situation.
What's the next step? The foundation is finalizing the site. When that is done, I can get started. Based on the timeline of [Bill] Clinton's library [designed by Polshek Partnership Architects], we are expecting to be finished with construction by 2013. Make sure everyone knows I haven't designed the building just yet.