Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, June 22, at 4 p.m. the Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library System Board of Trustees will hold their regular monthly meeting on the sixth floor of the Central Library. This meeting follows the Atlanta City Council meeting on June 20, at which the council recommended the construction of a new library on the site of the existing Central Library, designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer. The Atlanta Central Library was Breuer’s last commission. Parties interested in supporting the preservation of the library may contact Fulton County Commissioners. ArtsATL will update on the status of the library as more information is released.
When Seattle opened its OMA-designed library in 2004, Herbert Muschamp, critic for the New York Times, called it “the most exciting building it has been my honor to review.” A striking arrangement of staggered glass masses, the building immediately became a must-see for tourists, solidifying Rem Koolhaas among the “starchitect” class — mild celebrity status is hard to come by for architects.
Lately, renewed interest in creating an “iconic” library in the heart of downtown Atlanta has taken hold, with Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts telling Creative Loafing that just such a Central Library facility “will attract tourists and conventioneers.” What Pitts fails to understand is that Atlanta already has just that library.
Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus-trained modernist, was a “starchitect“ in his day. At the end of his illustrious career, which included the signature Brutalist monuments of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Breuer’s office was approached by then-director of the Atlanta Public Library, Carlton C. Rochell, who sought “a world class building.”
Designed with his associate Hamilton Smith, the Central Library was completed in 1980, and would be the final building that Breuer designed. In his retrospective of the impact of the library, Georgia Tech graduate student Thomas Shelby uncovered reviews of the building upon its opening, calling it “unique. It is individual. It is monolithic. And it is magnificent.” And according to his paper, “was early on a favorite building in the city.” But now, the 36-year-old building is threatened with possible demolition.
The uncertainty looming over the building’s future is serving as a call to action for preservation groups in Atlanta and around the world who are beginning to mobilize. It’s hardly a surprise, considering many Atlantans’ disdain for the building and the city’s tenuous relationship with preservation — recent losses include a home by Philip Trammell Shutze — but it is concerning.
Ironically, to gain the Breuer building, Atlanta lost its original Carnegie Library. Built in 1902, the classical structure was a Beaux-Arts construct of marble with grand two-story columns. Demolished in 1977 (a short-sighted decision then, as well), today, all that remains of the building is the “Monument to Education” at the intersection of Peachtree and West Peachtree streets, a few blocks north of where the library stood.
Oft maligned, the Breuer library is nothing if not a polarizing feature of downtown. Located at Margaret Mitchell Square, just off of Peachtree Street, the building is at first glance an unrefined, blocky gray mass, lording over the entry at Forsyth Street. With little fenestration, the building seems a cold, impenetrable fortress.
Regardless of whether the attributes are viewed as positive or negative, it is hard to say the building is not evocative. From the outside, to the casual observers as they hurry past on foot or in a car, the building seems banal, monolithic and out of context. But upon closer examination, the façade articulation, the careful stacked massing and the nuanced approach to detailing become clear. If one can step inside and look past the ill-conceived entry sequence created years after the library opened, the visitor is quick to discover the highly finessed detailing of the concrete components which make up the building. The staircases, the detail of the concrete left by the wooden formwork and the skylights all contribute to the building’s appeal.
A bond referendum held in 2008 is coming back to life post-recession, bringing with it a renewed threat to the Breuer building. Approved by 65 percent of voters before the recession, the referendum was intended to provide for the construction of new branch libraries across the city as well as bring in $50 million to replace the Breuer library. While plans changed through the intervening years, it is clear there are moves afoot to hasten the demise of the Central Library.
It can be argued that the reorganization and consolidation proposed by the board is simply symptomatic of the death of central libraries. After all, the role of libraries has changed significantly in the digital age. But to suggest that a building of such architectural merit is not worthy of being preserved and reused in a new capacity is shortsighted at best and downright flippant at worst. Suffering from neglect and a rather unflattering interior renovation in the last decade or so, the building would require a commitment by the city to restore and maintain the facility.
A solution which re-envisions the Breuer building as the state-of-the-art library is no doubt a feasible option. Though if the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System Board of Trustees decides a new library facility is needed, it has been proposed that a new facility could be built on one of the many vacant lots and parking lots in downtown, leaving the Breuer to be repurposed in any number of ways. As evidenced by the transformation of the former Whitney Museum into the Met Breuer, it is clear that with a careful restoration, Breuer’s works can be an iconic piece of the urban fabric in which they reside — the “iconic” institution that Pitt wishes to create.
It was a mistake to tear down the classical Carnegie library, which lent a sense of history and identity to the prominent intersection in downtown. It would be a tragedy to follow that mistake with an equally shortsighted demolition of the Breuer-designed library.
The Architecture and Design Center (ADC) has created a petition for people to voice their support for preservation of the building. The petition, which urges the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System Board of Trustees to “take actions to protect” the building “from demolition and damaging renovation,” has garnered more than 850 signatures, while a poll on Curbed Atlanta has shown overwhelming support for ensuring the future of the building.