February 1, 2009
Atlanta’s urge for a trendy new central library may mean that time is up for Marcel Breuer’s final building.
Reading is no longer the primary way that people get information, and public libraries are increasingly not just for books. Municipalities now see them as tools of urbanization, and many of the newer ones occupy mixed-use buildings containing galleries, shops, and even housing. High-profile main branches by famous architects are meant to generate downtown activity—the stated motivation behind Robb Pitts’s campaign for a new central library in Atlanta. “We need a facility that is representative of the dynamic city that Atlanta is, one that would be viewed by those who see it—locals and visitors alike—as spectacular, world-class,” says Pitts, a commissioner of Fulton County, Georgia. “It will be something that will have a lot of pop, and you’ll go, ‘Wow! Look at that—that’s Atlanta.’” Having secured $85 million last November through a bond referendum, Pitts hopes to incorporate retail, dining, and performance space into a high-visibility property. An early choice was a site facing Centennial Olympic Park, a tourist destination bordered by such attractions as CNN Center, the Georgia Aquarium, and the World of Coca-Cola. But opening a new main branch would mean abandoning the existing one—a design that many argue is already a world-class piece of architecture.
Completed in 1980, the Central Library is the last building by the Modernist master Marcel Breuer and his only Georgia project. A first cousin to his 1966 Whitney Museum of American Art, the cubic, eight-story structure is clad in textured concrete panels, with a few beveled, trapezoidal windows (a signature Breuer touch). As with the Whitney, its upper levels cantilever over an entry plaza. Barry Bergdoll, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator of architecture and design, who is writing a book on Breuer, calls the building a masterpiece. “How can you create a monumental symbol, which is also accessible to the public on street level, through a kind of magic act of holding a heavy value up in the air?” he says of the architect’s investigations. “How do you create a library that is an enclosed realm in and of itself, to protect the books, and yet has this public access?”
Breuer’s design sits closely surrounded by other buildings where Peachtree Street, a principal artery, touches a remaining patch of narrow, 19th-century street grid, about a half mile southeast of the proposed Centennial Olympic Park site. If the building could be viewed whole, from a greater distance, its sculptural power might be more affecting. As it is, Pitts and others don’t get it. “From a design point of view, it probably means a lot to those in the field, but for the average citizen who sees it, it’s just not there,” he says. “It’s dark, it’s not friendly, it’s not inviting.” Isabelle Hyman, a Breuer scholar at New York University, acknowledges that “the concrete architecture of that period is disdained right now. It’s massive, heavy, bulky, weighty, and it’s not appreciated.” Still, she insists, “You just don’t get rid of a good building by a good architect because it’s out of style.” Pitts would prefer a building with of-the-moment transparency. “I envision glass and color and water and openness,” he says. But can a shiny new building attract patrons to the library, and visitors to Atlanta?
Rem Koolhaas’s arrhythmic 2004 design has certainly done that for Seattle. In the initial seven months, the library’s circulation increased by 63 percent, and during the first year, it was associated with $16 million in new net spending throughout the city. An estimated 31 percent of its visitors—some 700,000 people—were from outside Seattle. Architecture tours of the building remain a big draw. “Everybody’s gotten library envy after the Koolhaas building,” Hyman says.
While less well-known than the Seattle library, Moshe Safdie’s 2003 design for Salt Lake City and Michael Graves’s 1995 project in Denver have also helped make those cities’ libraries a bigger draw. The Salt Lake City building, which Andrew Shaw, the assistant manager of community affairs, praises as “extremely functional,” includes local retail shops, a café, a gallery, and the studios of the local NPR affiliate, all oriented around a six-story atrium with spectacular views. “It builds up the community,” Shaw says, “not only to have great architecture but also architecture that’s focused on bringing people together.” In Denver, Graves added onto a landmark building to create an updated library with exhibit space that is linked by a public square to the Denver Museum of Art’s 1971 Gio Ponti building and Daniel Libeskind’s 2006 annex. “The library is extremely popular,” says Richard Grant, the communications director of the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’ve created one of the most architecturally unique plazas in the West.”
The renderings that Patrick Johnson, a principal architect at Ai3, a local Atlanta firm, drew up for Pitts suggest that the swooping structure facing the park would host restaurants and shops, an “interactive media hall,” a 500-seat auditorium, and, for outdoor events, a 10,000-square-foot elevated plaza that Johnson calls a reiteration of the Southern front porch. “Typically, libraries are focused internally and do not offer a public experience that is highly visible,” Ai3’s design statement says. But is this a remarkable building, one worth a pilgrimage? Koolhaas’s dazzling Seattle container is, after all, the structural expression of a pioneering exploration of how a library should function. Besides, it’s not even clear who would design the new Atlanta library—Ai3’s brief was limited to a preliminary concept.
Meanwhile, the Breuer building is not without local supporters. Max Eternity, an artist and Atlanta native, set up a preservation blog at centralbranchlibrary.blogspot.com, where he lacerates the county commission’s late insertion of funding for new construction into a bond referendum originally meant for systemwide improvements to existing branches. “Let’s not commit cultural suicide,” Eternity implored at a commission meeting last July. “And let’s not waste hard-earned tax dollars.” Even John Szabo, the director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Library System, who enthusiastically promoted Pitts’s vision for a new central branch when advocating for the bond referendum, now seems inclined to renovate the Breuer building. “It has a number of attributes functionally for us, in addition to being just a really fabulous building architecturally,” he says.
Those attributes include its considerable space (280,000 square feet); its large and relatively flexible floor plates; and its location at a Metropolitan Authority Rapid Transit (MARTA) stop. Among the improvements Szabo wants are retail or restaurant spaces and better vertical movement. (There are just two stairways, but they’re memorable: an opposing set that only connects levels two through four, and a big, airy rhomboid that goes from the basement to the second floor. Coupled with a main elevator bank that does not reach the top floor, they hamper circulation.) There is also a rooftop terrace, which is currently inaccessible—and virtually unknown—to the public. “Wouldn’t this make a cool coffee bar?” Szabo muses. “If we were to do a respectful renovation of this building, we could give it some of the appeal that our residents currently don’t see.”
Even though the referendum passed, economic conditions may ultimately determine the fate of Pitts’s proposal. Private sources would have to supply much more than the public funds secured so far. (The Seattle Central Library, for example, cost $165 million.) The current building would also have to be sold to help fund the new one, and though it would ideally be repurposed, Atlanta has a poor record of preserving worthy buildings. With its central position near MARTA, this is a potential teardown. Pitts calls the site “a great location for some other use,” without explicitly calling for the Breuer building’s demolition. “The access to transit is huge, let’s say, for a hotel or an office tower, where from an architectural point of view you’re looking up instead of at four sides of concrete.”
Jon Buono, a preservation architect, makes a compelling pragmatic argument for saving the building. “I’m clearly interested in the artistic and cultural value of the library,” he says. “But as a civic booster, I’m even more concerned with recognizing the financial and material value of that public investment.” He calculates that the energy embodied in the library and required for its demolition equals a year’s electricity consumption by some 4,000 households.
Bergdoll makes a more emotional appeal: “I’ve been to Atlanta,” he says. “There is a list of fabulous buildings, but the fact is that you can count them on your hands and toes. When you have one, why would you tear it down?”