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


The renovation of Atlanta’s Central Library is straightforward to pass up. With minor improvements created to the facade, the Marcel Breuer–designed making appears 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 grasp as the last word in any critical analysis.

At very first, these kinds of a critique was fixated on the demolition of a much-admired Beaux-Arts library to make way for the brutalist design. In recent years, having said that, preservationists have invoked a related framing to safeguard Breuer’s individual building from this sort of a destiny, rallying from a doable plan to exchange the city’s major library department with a new facility. All through a half-decade of advocacy that started with an urgent save-the-Breuer petition and culminated in a public discussion about modifications to the building’s envelope—regarding whether to understand patrons’ requests for all-natural lighting—the preservationists lobbied on behalf of the architect’s original “monumental” vision. Credited with equally saving the library and making sure the integrity of its facade, this marketing campaign has arrive to define how we fully grasp the building—and consider Cooper Have’s current intervention.

On the floor, the completed renovation looks to vindicate this narrative. Following all, the developing continue to stands, and the exterior alterations amount to just 3 financial institutions of new glazing, deftly incorporated into the rhythm of the precast concrete panels they changed. But glance past the once-impenetrable facade, and the library starts to convey to a various tale. Compared with the former residence of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York or with the erstwhile Pirelli Tire Creating in New Haven, Connecticut, the Atlanta undertaking is neither a meticulous restoration nor a redevelopment of a Breuer building that can profitably trade on the cachet of modernist nostalgia. The renovation does not hew to any historic sensibility at all, much fewer bear out the summary value of structure advised by the Docomomo manner of appraisal. Alternatively, the contributions of Cooper Have (supported by Moody Nolan and Vines Architecture) show up at to the more mundane needs of the library’s economic, institutional, and city circumstances, a established of issues integral to the redesign but all way too simply obscured by the essential body of conservation.

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

Location apart Breuer’s area in the modernist canon, the renovation stands on its own as a able reuse project, overwhelmingly concerned with instant fairly than historic stakes. It is a modest, nonetheless welcoming city library with a couple of specifically wonderful spaces that reward from the new fenestration. Reduced shelving, vibrant pods, ubiquitous charging stations, and other acquainted tropes of new library style soak up exercise into a prevalent background. The building’s soft opening in the course of the pandemic underlined this high quality, with a selection of parts cordoned off, waiting around to suppose their purpose as component of a intensely programmed plan.

The two massive “moves” of the redesign similarly signal a more animated but specifically calibrated potential: a seating stairway beneath a new skylit atrium and a retractable garage wall that opens onto the roof terrace. These locations are ancillary to the principal library functions, drawing their intent as a substitute from alternatives afforded by an existing ebook-sorting shaft and an underused administrative house.

So even though the layout does not exalt Breuer’s architecture, in lots of this kind of times, the get the job done of the renovation staff usually takes its cues right from the authentic construction. Delicate to the limits of a community project’s budget, the architects tightly interfaced aged and new elements to make the most of the existing conditions. They had been aided in this exertion by the flexibility developed into Breuer’s plan, with its minimum internal partitions and provisions for the growth onto unfinished seventh- and eighth-ground areas. This not only built the project economically tenable—a determinant issue in the building’s ongoing existence, given 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 necessities of a new program could be readily integrated.

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

And indeed, the quick presented in 2018 introduced significant changes: library holdings ended up to be greatly decreased, and nearly 50 percent of the ground house was to be shut off from the common general public, together with the celebrated roof terrace (which, in any scenario, had been functionally inaccessible for years). The library’s board of trustees, the stakeholder responsible for these changes, outlined this plan in response to ongoing digitization and the requires of new service aspects like tech amenities and lecture rooms. To offset fees, however, their approach also included commercializing sizeable elements of the developing as leasable space.

None of these decisions, however, found their way into the preservationists’ critique. Extensive following it grew to become very clear that the developing would not be changed, a symbolic focus on historic continuity held the facade as the central make any difference of discussion. In undertaking so, even so, the marketing campaign overshadowed the actual, product variations becoming made within the library, kinds considerably extra consequential to its future. The anxious architect-advocates who took the floor in community meetings looked earlier the diminished application and calculations of rentable sq. footage, instead outlining why all-natural mild in a library was truly undesirable. As alienating as this may possibly be to a skeptical public—which appreciated the distinctive creating but did not always see its modification as a betrayal—the place also signifies a dropped possibility for architects to visualize a legacy for modernism from outside the shadow of authorship. Past these a narrow idea of “saving the Breuer,” the problem of no matter if the facade modifications have been justified swiftly falls absent, though extra urgent problems these as a library’s responsibility to the general public turn out to be accessible for discussion.

Specified the sudden demolition of Breuer’s 1945 Geller Home in January, and for numerous much more functional, carbon-relevant motives, it is unquestionably excellent that the Atlanta Central Library was spared the wrecking ball. And it is also great that downtown Atlanta, for the very first time in many years, has returned a pleasure of location to its community library. Yet, we may do superior to reevaluate its most important body of reference. The renovation is instructive mainly because it reveals all that is at stake nevertheless inaccessible to a preservation-centered technique to architectural advocacy. A different system may well have lose additional mild on the conclusion-earning that educated so many of the project’s architectural results, and probably, even advised possibilities.

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


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