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.