Marcel Breuer’s remodeling of the Atlanta Central Library shows the fault lines of conservation causes

The Atlanta Central Library renovation is easy to overlook. With minor changes to the facade, the Marcel Breuer-designed building looks as it did when it opened in 1980. Then, as now, the library’s austere concrete facades evoke the authority of a modernist master as the last word in any critical appraisal.

Initially, such criticism was fixated on the demolition of a much-admired Beaux Arts library to make way for the Brutalist design. In recent years, however, preservationists have invoked a similar framework to protect Breuer’s own building from such a fate, and have rallied against a possible plan to replace the city’s main library branch with a new facility. During a half-decade of advocacy that began with an urgent petition to save the Breuer and culminated in a public debate over changes to the building’s envelope — whether to accommodate clients’ requests for natural lighting — preservationists lobbied for the architect’s original “monumental” vision. Credited with both saving the library and ensuring the integrity of its facade, this campaign defines how we understand the building – and evaluates Cooper Carry’s recent intervention.

On the surface, the completed renovation seems to confirm this narrative. After all, the building is still standing and the exterior changes amount to just three banks of new glazing, cleverly placed in rhythm with the replaced precast concrete panels. But look behind the once impenetrable facade, and the library begins to tell a different story. Compared to the former headquarters of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York or the former Pirelli Tire Building in New Haven, Connecticut, the Atlanta project is neither a careful restoration nor a new development of a Breuer building that can profitably trade the seal of approval of modernist nostalgia. The renovation does not contribute any historical sensibility, let alone the abstract value of the design suggested by the Docomomo valuation method. Instead, the contributions of Cooper Carry (assisted by Moody Nolan and Vines Architecture) address the more mundane demands of the library’s economic, institutional, and urban circumstances, a set of considerations that are integral to the redesign but all too easily overshadowed by the critical Frame will be obscured of conservation.

(Jonathan Hillyer Photography)

Leaving aside Breuer’s place in the modernist canon, the renovation stands on its own as an able re-use project, dealing predominantly with immediate rather than historical interests. It’s a modest but welcoming city library with some particularly nice rooms that benefit from the new windows. Low shelves, colorful pods, ubiquitous charging stations, and other familiar tropes of recent library design absorb activities into a common backdrop. The building’s soft opening during the pandemic underscored this quality, as a number of areas were cordoned off, waiting to assume their role as part of a heavily programmed plan.

The two major “moves” of the redesign also signal a more vibrant but precisely calibrated future: a seat stair beneath a new light-filled atrium and a retractable garage wall opening onto the rooftop terrace. These areas are subordinate to the main functions of the library and instead derive their purpose from the opportunities offered by an existing book sorting chute and underutilized administrative space.

Although the design does not emphasize Breuer’s architecture, in many such moments the renovation team’s work is directly related to the original structure. Sensitive to the constraints of a public project’s budget, the architects closely linked old and new elements to make the best of the existing conditions. Helped in this was the flexibility built into Breuer’s plan, with its minimal internal partitions and provision for expansion into unfinished rooms on the seventh and eighth floors. This not only made the project financially viable – a crucial factor in the building’s continued existence given the scale of the sponsorship effort and the failure of the advocacy campaign to secure legal protection status – but also meant that the demands of a new program could be met with ease be incorporated.

Interior of a library with wooden slat ceiling
(Jonathan Hillyer Photography)

And indeed, the commission presented in 2018 brought about important changes: the library stock was to be greatly reduced and almost half of the floor space was to be closed to the general public, including the famous roof terrace (which was already there). not working for years). The Library Board of Trustees, the stakeholders responsible for these changes, outlined this program as a response to ongoing digitization and the demands of new service elements such as tech facilities and classrooms. However, to offset the costs, their plan also included commercializing significant parts of the building as rental space.

However, none of these decisions met with criticism from the preservationists. Long after it was clear that the building would not be replaced, a symbolic focus on historical continuity kept the facade the focus of discussion. In doing so, however, the campaign overshadowed the real, material changes being made within the library that were far more consequential for its future. The concerned architect representatives speaking at community meetings looked beyond the reduced program and leasable square meter calculations and instead explained why natural light is actually undesirable in a library. As disconcerting as this may be to a skeptical public that appreciated the distinctive building but didn’t necessarily view its modification as a betrayal, the position also represents a missed opportunity for architects to envision a legacy for modernism outside the shadow of authorship . Beyond such a narrow notion of “rescuing Breuer,” the question of whether the facade changes were justified quickly falls away, while more pressing issues such as a library’s responsibility to the public are up for debate.

Given the sudden demolition of Breuer’s 1945 Geller House in January, and for many other practical, carbon-related reasons, it’s undoubtedly a good thing that the Atlanta Central Library was spared the wrecking ball. And it’s also great that downtown Atlanta is taking pride of place for its public library for the first time in decades. Still, perhaps we would do better to reevaluate the main frame of reference. The renovation is instructive because it reveals all that is at stake but is inaccessible to a conservation-based approach to architectural representation. A different strategy might have shed more light on the decision-making that influenced so many of the project’s architectural outcomes, and might even have suggested alternatives.

Shota Vashkmadze is an architect and historian from Atlanta, Georgia. He is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Leave a Comment