The remodel of Marcel Breuer’s Atlanta Central Library

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The renovation of Atlanta’s Central Library is simple to overlook. With small changes made to the facade, the Marcel Breuer–designed building appears considerably as it did in 1980, the 12 months it opened. Then and now, the library’s stark concrete exteriors invoke the authority of a modernist master as the past word in any essential analysis.

At 1st, these a critique was fixated on the demolition of a significantly-admired Beaux-Arts library to make way for the brutalist layout. In new many years, having said that, preservationists have invoked a related framing to protect Breuer’s very own making from this sort of a destiny, rallying from a possible prepare to substitute the city’s key library department with a new facility. Throughout a fifty percent-decade of advocacy that started with an urgent help save-the-Breuer petition and culminated in a general public debate above modifications to the building’s envelope—regarding irrespective of whether to recognize patrons’ requests for purely natural lighting—the preservationists lobbied on behalf of the architect’s primary “monumental” vision. Credited with each saving the library and ensuring the integrity of its facade, this marketing campaign has come to determine how we have an understanding of the building—and consider Cooper Carry’s current intervention.

On the surface area, the completed renovation appears to be to vindicate this narrative. Following all, the creating still stands, and the exterior alterations total to just three banks of new glazing, deftly integrated into the rhythm of the precast concrete panels they replaced. But search past the once-impenetrable facade, and the library commences to convey to a diverse tale. As opposed with the former property of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York or with the erstwhile Pirelli Tire Developing in New Haven, Connecticut, the Atlanta undertaking is neither a meticulous restoration nor a redevelopment of a Breuer creating that can profitably trade on the cachet of modernist nostalgia. The renovation doesn’t hew to any historic sensibility at all, a lot fewer bear out the summary value of layout advised by the Docomomo manner of appraisal. As an alternative, the contributions of Cooper Carry (supported by Moody Nolan and Vines Architecture) attend to the much more mundane requires of the library’s economic, institutional, and city conditions, a set of criteria integral to the redesign but all way too conveniently obscured by the essential frame of conservation.

(Jonathan Hillyer Pictures)

Setting apart Breuer’s place in the modernist canon, the renovation stands on its own as a capable reuse undertaking, overwhelmingly concerned with immediate somewhat than historical stakes. It is a modest, nonetheless welcoming town library with a number of particularly good areas that reward from the new fenestration. Reduced shelving, colourful pods, ubiquitous charging stations, and other familiar tropes of modern library style take in activity into a prevalent track record. The building’s tender opening in the course of the pandemic underlined this high quality, with a range of parts cordoned off, ready to think their purpose as aspect of a closely programmed program.

The two large “moves” of the redesign also sign a a lot more animated but exactly calibrated long run: a seating stairway beneath a new skylit atrium and a retractable garage wall that opens onto the roof terrace. These parts are ancillary to the principal library features, drawing their purpose as a substitute from opportunities afforded by an current ebook-sorting shaft and an underused administrative house.

So when the style does not exalt Breuer’s architecture, in numerous this kind of moments, the operate of the renovation crew normally takes its cues right from the unique construction. Delicate to the limits of a community project’s finances, the architects tightly interfaced old and new components to make the most of the present problems. They had been helped in this hard work by the overall flexibility developed into Breuer’s strategy, with its minimal inside partitions and provisions for the expansion onto unfinished seventh- and eighth-ground areas. This not only manufactured the job monetarily tenable—a determinant factor in the building’s ongoing existence, presented the scale of the bond measure and the failure of the advocacy campaign to secure any lawfully safeguarded status—but also intended that the prerequisites of a new method could be easily included.

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

And without a doubt, the transient offered in 2018 brought essential improvements: library holdings have been to be tremendously reduced, and nearly 50 percent of the ground room was to be closed off from the normal community, like the celebrated roof terrace (which, in any situation, experienced been functionally inaccessible for several years). The library’s board of trustees, the stakeholder liable for these changes, outlined this system in respond to to ongoing digitization and the requires of new provider features like tech services and school rooms. To offset expenditures, however, their approach also included commercializing significant parts of the making as leasable room.

None of these conclusions, nevertheless, uncovered their way into the preservationists’ critique. Extended after it turned apparent that the building would not be changed, a symbolic concentration on historic continuity stored the facade as the central make a difference of dialogue. In accomplishing so, nevertheless, the campaign overshadowed the genuine, substance alterations currently being designed within the library, ones significantly a lot more consequential to its upcoming. The worried architect-advocates who took the ground in neighborhood conferences seemed previous the diminished system and calculations of rentable square footage, instead conveying why natural mild in a library was truly undesirable. As alienating as this may be to a skeptical public—which appreciated the unique making but did not automatically see its modification as a betrayal—the situation also represents a shed opportunity for architects to envision a legacy for modernism from outside the house the shadow of authorship. Further than these types of a slim idea of “saving the Breuer,” the dilemma of whether or not the facade adjustments ended up justified swiftly falls absent, while more pressing challenges these as a library’s duty to the community grow to be readily available for discussion.

Specified the sudden demolition of Breuer’s 1945 Geller Residence in January, and for several extra useful, carbon-connected factors, it is unquestionably very good that the Atlanta Central Library was spared the wrecking ball. And it is also wonderful that downtown Atlanta, for the 1st time in decades, has returned a pleasure of place to its community library. However, we might do greater to reevaluate its principal body of reference. The renovation is instructive since it reveals all that is at stake yet inaccessible to a preservation-primarily based solution to architectural advocacy. A various method may possibly have lose a lot more light on the choice-creating that educated so several of the project’s architectural results, and perhaps, even suggested solutions.

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

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