BILL’S NEW TRAILER
by: Cathleen McGuigan
AS FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON WAS FACING HEART SURGERY IN A NEW YORK HOSPITAL LAST WEEK, workers were busy finishing up his residential library in Little Rock, set to open Nov. 18th, 2004. The stunning bridge-like structure will hold his memorabilia and 80 million pages of papers from his two terms, more documents than any other president’s . It even has a time capsule, with Bill and Hillary’s best-selling books and stuff like a Diet Coke can and a cellphone—sure to look quaint when the capsule is opened in 2104.
But will the building itself stand the test of time? Just as presidents try to shape the long view of history, Clinton has had a powerful hand in this tangible piece of his legacy, both in the building’s dramatic design—by the Polshek Partnership of New York—and in its potential impact on the city of his political roots.
Presidential libraries—with the exception of I. M. Pei’s Kennedy library on the Boston’s water-front—aren’t known for their architecture. Operated by the National Archives but funded by private money, these libraries are both repositories of documents that serve scholars, and tourist attractions (on average: 150,000 visitors a year) with exhibits that range from polite civics lessons to the Disneyesque (the Johnson library in Texas displays a life-size, robotized, talking LBJ in a cowboy hat). But Clinton’s library reflects a knowledgeable view of contemporary design. First Clinton chose an urban site—a 31-acre river-front tract of abandoned warehouses and train tracks near downtown Little Rock—instead of heading to suburbia. And in choosing an architect he avoided a splashy high-profile figure in favor of James Polshek, a much-respected “architect’s architect,” whose clean-edged
modernist designs reveal a deeply humanist touch. “I don’t see architecture as an art form7 says Polshek . “I see it as an enhancement of human experience.”
The design world was already buzzing about who would get this plum commission when the Clintons hosted a crowd of elite architects at a 1998 White House dinner for the Pritzker Architecture Prize. But by the next year, after considering several candidates, the president hadn’t found the right designer. Then Polshek’s partner, Richard Olcott, got a call from a Clinton family friend. When Polshek, now 74, and Olcott, 49, went to meet the president, they took along a young associate, Kevin McClurkan, who came from Little Rock. (He wound up as project manager.) The chemistry worked. “We’d been told he wanted a young architect, but at the same time a firm with sufficient seniority and experience ,” recalls Polshek . “So we went down there as—I hate the term—an inter-generational tag team.”
The team, officially hired in August 1999, set to work in its Greenwich Village offices. An unusual lack of ego seems to permeate the firm’s culture: the six partners are listed on the door in alphabetical order, which puts Polshek, who founded the office 40 years ago, far down the list. A certain ethic extends to the clients it takes on, too. For a big firm—there’s a staff of 130—it has done little work for commercial developers, focusing instead on cultural and educational projects, most famously the Rose planetarium at New York’s Museum of Natural History.
It was the Rose Center design that helped clinch the deal for the president’s 1ibrary, according to Clinton’s book “My Life,” but he also sent Chelsea to check out Polshek’s art museum at Stanford; she thought it was great. Clinton writes that he wanted the library’s public “exhibit space to be open, beautiful and full of light.” But the radical concept for the building didn’t emerge right away. At first Olcott and Polshek designed a long glass building parallel to the river. Then they experimented with turning the structure 90 degrees and raising it up like a bridge—and the president zoomed in on the scheme. Uh, right: that would be the bridge to the 21st century. Like the Rose planetarium—a giant orb inside a glass cube— the Clinton library is both a simple geometric abstraction and laden with symbolism.
Clinton kept close tabs on the unfolding design (as did Hillary, until her Senate race heated up), pushing the architects to make the main public building sleeker and simpler. A few months before ground-breaking , after he’d left the White House, Clinton summoned Polshek, from a Maine vacation, and Olcott, who was in Vermont, to his office in Harlem. The archives wing—to be used primarily by scholars—hugged the main building too closely, Clinton thought. Wouldn’t it look better if the two were still linked but pulled farther apart? “He was absolutely right’ says Olcott. “Ordinarily you wouldn’t make that big a change so late in the process . But when it’s the president—well, of course?’ Clinton, says Olcott, was a “Renaissance client,” who referred to other bridge-like buildings such as the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and who knew Trinity College Library in Dublin, which also inspired the design of thc main exhibit area (created with the exhibitions consultant Ralph Appelbaum) . Clinton and his architects also had long talks about Thomas Jefferson and oval rooms. Clinton insisted that the library’s full-scale replica of the Oval Office have real windows and natural light. He drew them a sketch, which he inscribed: “To my patient architects—with thanks for tolerating my obsessions— Bill Clinton.”
Were his obsessions worth it? Absolutely. Like Clinton himself, the library is larger than life: bold and dramatic. Yet, as he wanted, it’s also people-friendly and light. It campaigns hard for your vote of “Wow!” The long glass box cantilevers 90 feet to the edge of the Arkansas River (But not a hair over it—the Secret Service wouldn’t allow that). As in other Polshek buildings, its structure—the supports that slice through the building—is honestly revealed, and the details are crisp and elegant. An outer glass screen shades the main glass wall, creating an airy veranda in the best Southern tradition. The inside is filled with light and has many expansive views of the river and the city.
Not everyone in Little Rock appreciates the design—some have dubbed it “the world’s biggest double-wide? But good modern architecture is rare in the mid-South; as one local architect says, “There’s no building in the state that compares. And to consider the library apart from its context is a mistake. Its surrounding acres of new parkland, designed by landscape architect George Hargreaves, will reclaim the waterfront, a great old railroad bridge on the site will be saved and the adjacent 1899 Choctaw railroad station is now the Clinton School of Public Service. The library has been a catalyst for $800 million in new development, according to Skip Rutherford, chairman of the Clinton Foundation —who’s busy raising the last of the $165 million the whole project is costing.
As we wish Clinton a speedy recovery, let’s look to the future for a moment, to the day they open that time capsule. Just as presidents can never know how history will treat them, we can’t foretell what 2104 will say about this design. But from where we sit now, it looks like a classic.
September 13, 2004. (Pgs. 54-56)
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