The Bush Presidential Center
Conservative, elegant, edited, and (for now) restrictive.
Dallas, TX — Parking is the first “tough decision” you’ll have to make when visiting the newly opened 250 million dollar Presidential Center. When driving along the west side, the building has a spatial stance similar to an embassy, looking out in all directions (without the perimeter wall). While not apparent from the exterior, the building is actually home to three different areas for archiving, curation, and policy. The absence of any architectural cues about which part containes the public museum makes a bad parking situation even worse. The picture below shows the west-side exposure containing the entrance for the Institute (seldom visited by the general public).
Robert A.M. Stern Architects had a difficult design challenge: Create an architectural portait of the George W. Bush while also conforming to Southern Methodist University’s collegiate interpretation of Georgian red-bricked architecture. Given those contraints, I actually think Stern did a great job. The building is conservative and elegant, particularly when compared to a campus full of newly constructed puffed-up Georgian super-buildings.
The public museum entrance is a quiet three-sided square colonnade at the end of the building, which some say make allusions to architectural examples of “muscular state power.” Perhaps. But it reminded me of another building on the SMU campus where I attended art school for four years — The Owens Art Center, by Dallas architect George Dahl, 1965. The brick and limestone buildings are similar in that they are successful embodiments of current architecture based on historical context. However, unlike Dahl’s plaza entrance which allows people to arrive through any door, this symmetrical runway redirects everyone to enter through a single side-door for security inspections.
Once inside — ensconced by white Tunesian marble, pecan-paneled ceilings, and bronze doorways — the interior’s immaculate surfaces seem soft and light, which bely the actual heaviness of everything. Just beyond the circular ticketing island is the physical and symbolic center of the facility called “Freedom Hall.” It rises 60-feet high, replete with coffered ceilings and crowned with a continuous 360° digital frieze of motion pictures celebrating Americans. Between cycles, it rests on what seems like a pleasant asian painting of a southwestern motif?
The actual museum begins through a door at the back corner of this hall. The initial corridor contains heartwarming pictures of a young Bush family and sentiments about compassion and faith. It left me scratching my head trying to bridge all of his “compassionate conservatism”— which sounds genuine — with the aggressive legacy of war, torture, and rendition.
The museum attempts to address history by revealing exhibit spaces in a narrative and chronological order to help us understand the “tough decisions” as they occurred. Turning the first corner presents a dramatic display of the September 11th attacks with two vertical pieces of steel that now look like shriveled bacon. This provides the context for everything that follows. It kicks off with two exhibits about the Global War on Terror defined as “Responding” and “Defending.” The issues are conflated with Iraq as a dangerous actor and make zero mention of Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, or Dick Cheney. This is punctuated with the “Decision Points” theater which allows you to be “The Decider” in regard to Katrina, Iraq, and other scenarios. After a three minute briefing, multiple choice answers allow the audience to indicate what they would have done. While I love the idea of presenting complex concepts in terms of narrative, this one feels simplistic and purely tactical. I left me hoping that Presidents actually get more information and thoughtful insight before making such immense decisions.
The adjacent spaces are exact recreations of the Oval Office and the Situation Room where these conversations presumably took place. Architecturally, it’s fascinating to see a world within a world. They are reminders of how the design of physical space is a technology which shapes the way we think and behave. The oval geometry of the President’s office focuses attention at the apex and thereby bestows power at the desk. I didn’t wait in the line for the claustrophobic Situation Room, but photos capture how its compression forces concentration.
The museum exhibit itself is a combination complex winding pathways and simple platitudes about “freedom” and “patriotism” — meant to embody a sense of cowboy certainty while navigating a complicated world. Unfortunately, these exhibits don’t memorialize any of Bush’s sayings which so perfectly capture his personality and mindset. I kept looking for that famous line delivered shortly after 9/11 when Bush said, “You’re either with us or against us; you’re either evil or you’re good.” Instead, we get a cleaned up version that makes him sound more like Shakespeare, but without innuendo or complexity. Maureen Dowd nailed it in today’s NY Times:
“Proving that the library is more a monument to Laura’s artful airbrushing than W.’s artless leadership, there’s a swank Café 43 with fancier fare than W.’s cherished PB&J’s, and a gift shop featuring Laura’s favorite books, from Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” to Truman Capote’s “Music for Chameleons.”
The space was clearly crafted by the hands of competent professionals which replace any remnant of personal quirkiness with elegant formality. However, as is the case with many of the new & impressive Dallas landmarks, I have the same criticism: the use of the space is not social. Every part is well arranged, but without any holistic allowance for the larger leisure experience of the general public.
Visitors can contemplate the exhibition in a double-decker outdoor portico with café and glimpses of a sprawling fifteen acre park full of wildflowers and pathways. But noone can’t go out there, not directly. The door is locked. I felt like a prisoner. Instead of spilling out into the bucolic Texas landscape — which is the prize of this entire complex — visitors are rerouted out the opposite way, through the front entrance, which causes an uncomfortable congestion with others arriving. None of the docents knew how to get back to the garden area, so I had to wonder around aimlessly hoping to find it.
I assume this is for security reasons, which could abate over time. But for now, it feels like a deprivation.
The swooping landscape holds soft native grasses, wildflowers, pedestrian bridges, and rocky amphitheaters designed by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. This is an incredible addition to the SMU campus and Dallas at large. And yet, nobody was there on a crowded museum day except for one passed-out homeless person. The building is not being used to invite people into the park, and worse, the park is barely discoverable. I’m sure photographs will eventually fill SMU’s marketing catalogs with students reclining and laughing with each other; so why doesn’t the space actually promote the thing that everyone wants?
I had realistic expectations for the exhibits within this 13th Presidential Center because I know they are always biographical and auto-biographical at the same time. However, the building itself made visual promises about access and experience which are denied at every turn for security. Like the promise of “compassionate conservatism,” a tantalizing expectation is created, and then denied.