Who will save Breuer's Brutalist Atlanta library?
Some see this building as the Whitney of the South. So why is the city so keen to demolish this masterwork?
You could call it the Whitney of the South. OK, the Atlanta Central Library houses thousands of books, not hundreds of works of art, as Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American art did. Yet its stepped, geometric form bears many similarities to the Manhattan institution – now known as the Met Breuer – and was perhaps the final masterwork by the great architect, prior to his death in 1981.
As author Robert McCarter explains in our new Breuer book, the library was one of the last public buildings that Breuer designed before his retirement in 1976; the architect was too poorly to attend the library’s dedication, which took place 35 years ago this week, on 25 May 1980.
While he may not have lived to enjoy this building, Breuer understood how the forms and ideas he set down out at the Whitney were further developed, south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
“The Atlanta Central Library was commissioned from Breuer by the library board and its director, Carlton Rochelle, who was highly <!--[if gte mso 10]>
<![endif]-->enamoured of the Whitney Museum,” explains McCarter. “Like the Whitney Museum, the largely solid cubic mass of the library is carved into at its base, stepping out over the streets on three sides, and the entry to the library, on the southeast facade, is deeply carved, forming a powerfully shadowed sculptural composition similar to the Whitney.”
The Atlanta library is even paved with the same bluestone slabs as the Whitney, and the concrete panels were bush hammered in places, to bring about the same weathered patina.
Alas, while Breuer’s New York building was sympathetically restored prior to its reopening as the Met Breuer at the beginning of this year, the Atlanta Central Library has enjoyed less favourable treatment. Poor maintenance has caused the building to fall into disrepair. Its theatre and restaurant closed during the 1990s, its elevators no longer work and its roof leaks.
The library has been placed on the World Monuments Watch list, alongside Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Família and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Yet this hasn’t stopped Atlanta’s grandees from proposing its complete demolition.
Some among the local Fulton County commissioners favour selling off Breuer’s building, and creating a much smaller library in downtown Atlanta; others argue that it would be wiser to demolish this Brutalist masterpiece, and rebuild something easier to manage on the same plot.
A few more cautious voices have claimed that, despite its state of repair, the library draws three million visitors annually, and remains one of the city’s most popular public amenities, while others argue that local officials were wrong to demolish the Carnegie Library, a pleasant neo-classical building which once stood on the site of the current Breuer building, and are about to make the same mistake twice, by knocking down this masterwork.
If you would like to support the campaign to save the library, go here; meanwhile, for greater insight into the reasons why it's worth saving, order a copy of our new Breuer book here; the author discusses the building in great depth; and for more on the mid-century joys of concrete order a copy of This Brutal World here.