The remodel of Marcel Breuer’s Atlanta Central Library demonstrates the fault lines of preservation causes


The renovation of Atlanta’s Central Library is simple to overlook. With slight improvements designed to the facade, the Marcel Breuer–designed making seems considerably as it did in 1980, the calendar year it opened. Then and now, the library’s stark concrete exteriors invoke the authority of a modernist learn as the previous word in any crucial evaluation.

At initially, these types of a critique was fixated on the demolition of a substantially-admired Beaux-Arts library to make way for the brutalist style. In latest years, nevertheless, preservationists have invoked a identical framing to secure Breuer’s own creating from this kind of a destiny, rallying from a probable strategy to swap the city’s principal library branch with a new facility. Through a half-ten years of advocacy that began with an urgent preserve-the-Breuer petition and culminated in a public discussion in excess of modifications to the building’s envelope—regarding whether or not to recognize patrons’ requests for all-natural lighting—the preservationists lobbied on behalf of the architect’s initial “monumental” eyesight. Credited with both of those preserving the library and ensuring the integrity of its facade, this campaign has appear to determine how we have an understanding of the building—and consider Cooper Have’s the latest intervention.

On the floor, the concluded renovation appears to be to vindicate this narrative. Soon after all, the creating continue to stands, and the exterior alterations amount of money to just three banking institutions of new glazing, deftly integrated into the rhythm of the precast concrete panels they replaced. But search previous the at the time-impenetrable facade, and the library starts to convey to a distinct story. In comparison with the previous house of the Whitney Museum of American Artwork in New York or with the erstwhile Pirelli Tire Developing in New Haven, Connecticut, the Atlanta challenge is neither a meticulous restoration nor a redevelopment of a Breuer building that can profitably trade on the cachet of modernist nostalgia. The renovation doesn’t hew to any historical sensibility at all, significantly considerably less bear out the abstract benefit of design and style proposed by the Docomomo manner of appraisal. Instead, the contributions of Cooper Have (supported by Moody Nolan and Vines Architecture) show up at to the far more mundane demands of the library’s financial, institutional, and city instances, a set of issues integral to the redesign but all way too very easily obscured by the important body of conservation.

the concrete interior of a brutalist library
(Jonathan Hillyer Photography)

Location aside Breuer’s location in the modernist canon, the renovation stands on its possess as a able reuse venture, overwhelmingly involved with rapid somewhat than historical stakes. It is a modest, nevertheless welcoming metropolis library with a couple in particular pleasant spaces that benefit from the new fenestration. Very low shelving, colorful pods, ubiquitous charging stations, and other familiar tropes of current library structure soak up activity into a popular background. The building’s delicate opening all through the pandemic underlined this high quality, with a variety of parts cordoned off, waiting to believe their part as portion of a greatly programmed program.

The two large “moves” of the redesign furthermore sign a far more animated but precisely calibrated foreseeable future: a seating stairway beneath a new skylit atrium and a retractable garage wall that opens onto the roof terrace. These regions are ancillary to the major library functions, drawing their reason as a substitute from opportunities afforded by an present reserve-sorting shaft and an underused administrative house.

So when the layout does not exalt Breuer’s architecture, in several this kind of moments, the do the job of the renovation team can take its cues straight from the initial framework. Delicate to the limitations of a general public project’s finances, the architects tightly interfaced previous and new things to make the most of the present circumstances. They had been served in this work by the adaptability developed into Breuer’s plan, with its minimum inside partitions and provisions for the growth onto unfinished seventh- and eighth-flooring spaces. This not only built the task economically tenable—a determinant variable in the building’s continued existence, presented the scale of the bond evaluate and the failure of the advocacy marketing campaign to safe any legally shielded status—but also intended that the needs of a new software could be quickly incorporated.

interior of a library with wood slat ceiling
(Jonathan Hillyer Pictures)

And in fact, the temporary introduced in 2018 brought vital modifications: library holdings were to be greatly lessened, and nearly 50 % of the ground area was to be closed off from the common public, which includes the celebrated roof terrace (which, in any circumstance, experienced been functionally inaccessible for years). The library’s board of trustees, the stakeholder accountable for these adjustments, outlined this application in reply to ongoing digitization and the calls for of new company factors like tech amenities and lecture rooms. To offset costs, however, their program also concerned commercializing major pieces of the developing as leasable space.

None of these selections, on the other hand, found their way into the preservationists’ critique. Extended after it became distinct that the constructing would not be replaced, a symbolic concentration on historic continuity kept the facade as the central make a difference of dialogue. In carrying out so, nonetheless, the campaign overshadowed the serious, product changes remaining produced within the library, kinds much more consequential to its long term. The anxious architect-advocates who took the floor in group conferences seemed earlier the diminished system and calculations of rentable sq. footage, in its place outlining why purely natural mild in a library was essentially undesirable. As alienating as this might be to a skeptical public—which appreciated the distinct making but did not necessarily see its modification as a betrayal—the position also represents a shed possibility for architects to envision a legacy for modernism from outside the house the shadow of authorship. Beyond such a slim notion of “saving the Breuer,” the dilemma of no matter if the facade alterations were being justified promptly falls away, when much more pressing problems these types of as a library’s accountability to the general public turn out to be obtainable for discussion.

Given the sudden demolition of Breuer’s 1945 Geller Property in January, and for a lot of a lot more simple, carbon-connected motives, it is unquestionably fantastic that the Atlanta Central Library was spared the wrecking ball. And it is also terrific that downtown Atlanta, for the to start with time in decades, has returned a pleasure of spot to its public library. Nevertheless, we may possibly do better to reevaluate its principal frame of reference. The renovation is instructive due to the fact it reveals all that is at stake yet inaccessible to a preservation-centered tactic to architectural advocacy. A diverse system may have shed more light on the selection-earning that educated so lots of of the project’s architectural outcomes, and probably, even recommended solutions.

Shota Vashakmadze is an architect and historian from Atlanta, Georgia. He is presently pursuing a PhD at the College of California, Los Angeles.


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