William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park

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Main structures on grounds of the William J.Clinton Presidential Center

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park is the home of the Clinton Presidential Library, the Clinton School of Public Service, and the Clinton Public Policy Institute. The Library was funded by the William J. Clinton Foundation.

The main building, comprising the Clinton Library Museum and

LITTLE ROCK, Ark., Nov. 19 - With its sleek horizontal form hovering at the edge of the Arkansas River, the new William J. Clinton Presidential Center has been called by promoters a "bridge to the 21st century," a trite allusion to one of the former president's favorite themes. Locals snicker that it looks like an enormous double-wide trailer. Actually, its best elements fall somewhere between those two extremes.

Designed by James Polshek and Richard Olcott of the New York-based firm Polshek Partnership, the library has moments of genuine architectural power. Its sleek cantilevered form thrusts out aggressively toward the river, anchoring the building in the landscape. Its modern appearance masks a firm grasp of local vernacular traditions, from decaying industrial bridges to the rickety shotgun shacks that are a haunting emblem of the old South.

The result is a building that embodies the kind of progressive centrist values that Mr. Clinton virtually defined. The design ranks at the top of a long list of presidential libraries; for example, above I. M. Pei's sleek 1979 design for the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Like that model, the obvious aim is to provide the patina of respectability and in the process help cement Mr. Clinton's legacy in the public imagination.

It's a dignified approach but not a compelling one. The design fails to tap into the psychological complexity or political nuances that made Bill Clinton one of the most fascinating characters of our era - the charisma, the supple mind, the populist touch. In straining so hard to project the library's gravitas, Mr. Polshek gives us a solid but predictable design.

The library overlooks a long, narrow 28-acre park that runs along the river's edge just east of the city center. Designed by the New York-based landscape architects Hargreaves Associates, the park is composed of a series of gently sloping, faceted grass lawns whose surfaces dissolve into the rougher texture of the existing riverfront. The rusted arching trusses of the Rock Island Railroad Bridge spans the river just west of the library. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the bridge has a crusty beauty that evokes Little Rock's industrial past. Just beyond it is the muscular concrete form of an elevated freeway.

Set perpendicular to the river, the library looks comparatively slick. The building's massive steel form rests on pylons at one end, with the glass-enclosed lobby and cafe tucked underneath. Clad in large aluminum panels and laminated glass, the building seems to float above the landscape, echoing the forms of nearby bridges that span the river to the west. The Clintons' private apartment, wrapped in gray-green glass, is perched on top, barely visible above the parapet.

To break up the building's monumentality, the architect punctures the facade with a series of large windows, some two stories high. Yet the library's machinelike exterior looms over the setting like an aircraft carrier. And like most of Mr. Polshek's best work, its strength stems from the purity of its formal language rather than any architectural subtlety. Unabashedly modern, it embraces both contemporary orthodoxies and the rawness of an older industrial past.

That effect is more emphatic inside. Most visitors will enter from the south, passing along the building's flank and slipping underneath this form into the lobby. The belly of the concrete structure that houses most of the library's mechanical systems slopes up above you on both sides, so that the full weight of the building bears down on you, creating a wonderful sense of compression. From here, you turn back and slip outside the main form and along the side of the building, where you can step out onto a long veranda projecting toward the river, framing a spectacular view of the old bridge.

The veranda's long, narrow form is a riff on the shotgun houses in the poor neighborhoods just south of the library. And it demonstrates Mr. Polshek's ability to connect his work to local history without mimicking it.

In one of the design's most elegant gestures, the glass walls enclosing the veranda break open at one corner of the building, which is supported by a system of rugged steel cross-braces. The opening frames a view of the muscular, decrepit form of the old bridge, drawing it into the composition and imbuing the scene with a sudden romantic touch.

The design is otherwise dully conventional. The second-floor exhibition spaces are flanked by towering cherry wood bookcases inspired by those at the Trinity College library in Dublin - a favorite building of Mr. Clinton's but weirdly out of place here. A row of canted steel-clad interactive display panels runs down the middle of the room.

Designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, they are pure kitsch: they neither enliven the space nor give it form, and they distract from the strong geometry of the architectural forms. The third-floor galleries are on twin balconies above this space. Smaller in scale, they are riddled with memorabilia of the Clintons' years in the White House, from an elaborate glass Christmas tree by the artist Dale Chihuly to an ivory inaugural gown worn by Hillary Rodham Clinton to a stuffed version of the Clintons' cat, Socks.

But the most mesmerizing space on this floor is a reproduction of the Oval Office, planted at one end like a stage set. On the morning of the building's formal opening, clusters of visitors peered through the office doors to view the overwrought carved wood desk, a reproduction of the one originally used by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Busts of former presidents - Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman - are scattered around the room.

Mr. Clinton spent hours fiddling with the architect to get the mood here just right. In particular, he wanted to avoid the faux glitz he found in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Tex., where the Oval Office is bizarrely replicated at seven-eighths the original scale. By comparison, the Clinton version is a near-exact copy - an honest fake that manages to evoke a real sense of the weight of history.

But it also reflects what's such a downer about the building: its relentless earnestness. Mr. Polshek's best architecture has a straightforward clarity. The Rose Center, his shimmering glass-box planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, evokes the purity of Enlightenment ideals even as it seems to dissolve into the canopy of trees surrounding it. But his lesser projects have a predictable academic quality, as if he were designing by numbers. All of the right moves are there, but there are no surprises, no elements of sudden, unexpected beauty.

Mr. Clinton is a fervent Elvis fan, and as with Elvis, there has always been something subversively seductive about his character. The library's design, by comparison, stays carefully on the surface. It is the difference, to paraphrase that wonderful line from the critic Dave Hickey, between the genuine rhinestone and the imitation pearl.

Clinton Presidential Library

See also

Clinton School of Public Service

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Clinton Public Policy Institute

Building Architecture and Design

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Building Construction

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Landscape Architecture & Site Remediation

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  • Nicolai Ouroussoff, "Architecture Review: William J. Clinton Presidential Center an Earnest Building for a Complex President," New York Times, November 25, 2004.

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