Modernist buildings in Atlanta have a proclivity towards neglect and disappearance. At a moment of political unrest over a famous Brutalist building, the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) hosts a beautifully designed traveling show about renowned architect Marcel Breuer, whose last great building happens to be our Atlanta Central Library. The museum reaches out to educate the public about a local architectural gem by presenting the expansive career of an international master. But can this show’s subtle activism change the minds of Atlantans?
The Central Library’s an avant-garde, concrete block building from the 1970s whose monumentality is tucked away on a somewhat obscure downtown side street. Perhaps it would be better understood in a more open space. It’s hardly a tourist destination like Rem Koolhaas’s glassy Seattle Public Library, which is the 21st century library du jour. The Central Library’s main patrons are the homeless who can’t afford a computer, or who just need somewhere warm to rest. Other patrons include art students looking to sample the retro graphics of the library’s awesome collection of books from the 70s and 80s. The security desk, stale air, and homey display cases at the entrance are more reminiscent of a juvenile prison than an inspiring city information center. The realities of its daily use, location, and culture seem cruel; it’s easy to imagine why this dinosaur is so unpopular with the mainstream. What’s worse, the library has been largely forgotten by residents that would most appreciate designer architecture. As city officials decide the fate of Breuer’s building, the architecture community has tried to reignite appreciation for the original design and its creator.
Half of the show is installed at MODA and focuses on Breuer’s furniture design and residential architecture. The other half is located at the Central Library and focuses on buildings and churches. Design motifs are clearly defined and consistent in both venues: bright orange-red panels, exquisite cantilevered metal vitrines, large black and white portraits of Breuer, and lovely white architectural models with accompanying blueprints that pull out from the side. The displays were “prepackaged” by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany in clear reverence of Breuer’s work. But—alas!–if only MODA could add a few site-specific details, the show might better reach out to the mainstream.
In particular, I really wish that the timeline of Breuer’s career at the front of both venues had included this bolded insertion: Atlanta Central Library, built 1977. The building was originally commissioned by members of the library’s board, and it specifically aspired to the excellence of Breuer’s pinnacle accomplishment, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. In the current exhibit, models of those two buildings are artfully placed side by side: There’s no doubt that they’re sisters. Through its focus on Breuer’s innovations in volume and space, this section of the exhibition inspires the intellectual as well as the aesthete.
For instance, the spaceship-like, concrete Begrisch Hall at NYU sits atop a soft hill. Students see the triangular volume of two balanced lecture halls lifted in the air as they approach the building. In the display of Breuer’s churches, we then see the architect open up the previously blocky buildings. This is a key to understanding the formalism of Breuer’s architecture: He wished to protect and define the specific physicality of spaces from the exterior. Not unlike the old Georgia Archives Building, built in 1965 by A. Thomas Bradbury, our Central Library is stylistically historic — and is an appropriate symbol for the disappearing age of material information. It is in these designs that Breuer’s use of space is most uncompromised.
After the rejection of yet another downtown library building, a pattern has emerged. (Note the image, to the left, of the building that was demolished to build the Breuer library). During his term as Public Library Director in the 1970s, Carlton Rochell was eager to have “a world class building.” He said, “ If you want a home run, you pick Hank Aaron.” And so they picked one in Marcel Breuer. In a more recent echo, current Fulton County Commissioner Rob Pitts rejected the previous home run, stating, “We need a facility that is … spectacular, world-class … something that will have a lot of pop, and you’ll go, ‘Wow! Look at that—that’s Atlanta.” An $85 million bond referendum passed last November. Pitts hopes to incorporate the library into a retail, dining, and performance space–a high-visibility central library property. But can we afford to buy another piece of designer architecture, when we already have one that’s considered a masterpiece?
I encourage everyone to see the show and make up your own mind as to whether we should preserve this Modernist landmark. Even if you don’t care for the cast-cement megaliths of the 70s, it’s definitely worth the effort to find parking downtown and visit both locations. And even if you don’t care for the politics, it will make your heart swell with pride for this deliciously passé building. As with fashion preferences for skirt lengths, tastes in architecture change in cycles. It would be a civic blunder to let ’em tear it down without proper consideration!
MONDAY, DECEMBER 14
John Poros The Atlanta Central Library: The End of a Long Search
Central Public Library, Auditorium / 6PM
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 13
Barry Bergdoll Marcel Breuer and the Invention of Heavy Lightness: From the Bauhaus to Atlanta
Central Public Library, Auditorium / 7PM