Designs for the new George W. Bush library and presidential conference center were unveiled last month. The architect is the Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, Robert A.M. Stern. Of Stern’s proposed design, I write:
Is it a great building? Robert Stern doesn’t design great buildings, at least in the sense of buildings that are bold and memorable, that carry on the dialectic and drama of the grand tradition of architecture. His work is a pause in that tradition, a bracket within the forward-driving discourse of architectural history. They are buildings for people who have grown tired of architecture with a capital A.
But Stern’s work, in retrospect, often seems like the ideal solution to a particular problem. In this case, there are two problems that have been well solved. The first is the difficulty of characterizing Bush in architecture without parody or aggrandizement. What other style would have worked? Brutalism? A glass box? A neoclassical pile in the Washington style? Bush was so full of contradictions, so seemingly hostile to the very things that define most important architects — intellectual sophistication, metaphorical games, aesthetic refinement — that it’s hard to imagine a more meaningful building ever fitting him comfortably.
The second problem I mention is the larger issue of whether presidents should be in the business raising the kind of money it takes to build these living sepulchers. I’m not sure it’s good for democracy.
I’m personally allergic to historical reenactments and most forms of interactive history telling. I think all too many museums and historical sites grasp at straws, technically and aesthetically, when they try to recreate the way history is told. But I acknowledge the problem of falling attendance, reduced engagement and the side effects for the history business of living in an over-entertained, over-stimulated, over-busy society.
The comparison between the newspaper business and the history business is telling. Even the attendance figures at a place like Colonial Williamsburg are eerily familiar to the subscription numbers of major newspapers. They peaked at an annual high of 1 million in the 1980s, and have dwindled to about 700,000 recently, a downward curve remarkably similar to that of a large metropolitan daily. Who have they lost? Essentially the same people that newspapers are losing. And on what do they pin their hopes? In many cases it’s technological innovation that is just emerging but has yet to reveal its real impact (subscriptions on Kindle? iPhone aps that turn the museum into an enhanced reality zone?).
I spent a lovely day at Williamsburg earlier this month, and wrote up some the changes that are happening there, in the guise of a story about their most recent addition (the first major reconstruction in more than fifty years) to the storied Duke of Gloucester Street. Williamsburg has the deep pockets to think this through, so their innovations will be closely studied by many less well-endowed museums. I wish them luck.