Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Despite changes in architectural fashion and a debate over its future, the Brutalist Atlanta-Fulton Central Library will live on.
One of Marcel Breuer’s finest works, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, opened in September 1966. Among the many who were struck by the distinctly Brutalist design was Carlton Rochell, the director of Atlanta’s public library system. A few years later, he would ask the architect to bring something similar to Atlanta—and more essential to that city. Rochell told the Atlanta Journal years later that he believed Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and Eero Saarinen were the three greatest architects of their time.
Before coming to the United States, the Hungarian-born Breuer had been one of the Bauhaus’s greatest students and instructors. He arrived at the art school in 1920 as an 18-year-old and would go on to design and build chairs, tables, storage units, cabinetry, even home interiors for his friends. The school’s director Walter Gropius asked Breuer back as an instructor, and then, after the Bauhaus closed for good, to split an architecture practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts, building mostly private homes. Breuer later moved to New York to start his own practice and, on top of his known ability to design stunning modern homes, developed a reputation for his expert use of concrete as a functional and expressive face for institutions across the U.S. and Europe. He won an AIA Gold Medal, one of the highest honors in U.S. architecture, in 1968.
But that same year, he unveiled two different concepts for a skyscraper over the Beaux-Arts (and recently landmarked) Grand Central Terminal in New York. Coming a few years after the demolition of Penn Station, the proposal sparked fierce opposition and won him little support among friends and colleagues in New York. It was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
He would face no such obstacles replacing downtown Atlanta’s Beaux-Arts Carnegie Library, which could not keep up with the evolving technological needs of a growing population. Breuer and his associate Hamilton Smith, who had also worked on the Whitney, flew down to Atlanta in March 1971 with a model of their library in tow. Rochell loved it, so did then-Mayor Sam Massell. As at the Whitney, a push-and-pull composition of bush-hammered concrete walls and carefully placed window sections that choreographed natural light would make for an unforgettable public landmark, next to Margaret Mitchell Square. In a city that was being reshaped by a gigantic private sector, with mixed-use developments like the Omni Complex and Peachtree Center, Breuer’s design would further the city’s modernity while providing something all Atlantans could enjoy equally.
But the project quickly met the reality of city politics. By 1975, it was still pending voter support on a bond measure, which it eventually secured that December. The following summer, designs for the library still hadn’t evolved beyond the facade presented in 1971—an image that the library used to gain support, and later faced criticism for, as it deceptively promoted the project as if it were a fleshed-out design.
In 1976, Rochell left his position and Breuer retired from architecture, leaving Smith and a new library head (Ella Gaines Yates, the system’s first African-American director) to navigate the remaining obstacles. The delays went on for so long that one month before the official ribbon-cutting, an Atlanta Constitution editorial called it “an architectural Taj Mahal and an administrative Tower of Babel.”
Nearly a decade after Breuer and Smith first flew down to Atlanta with their model, the $18.9 million library finally opened on May 25, 1980. It was the last of Breuer’s projects to be completed, but he missed the celebrations due to failing health. Thanks to the firm’s conservative calculations early on, the project ended up with enough money left over to supply seventh and eighth floors for future expansion. The structure was stunning: An open central stairwell led up to a ceiling with domed skylights. Above that were a restaurant and roof terrace, and in the basement were an auditorium, children’s department, and cafeteria.
Upon the building’s opening, the editorial board of the Atlanta Constitution saw it as something truly meant for the city, with “its spirit of newness, of adventure, of expanding intellectual horizons, of worlds yet unconquered.” And while architecture schools and publications had moved past heroic concrete, the new library was generally seen by Atlantans as a long overdue symbol of the future.
Breuer died on July 1, 1981, a little more than a year after the library opened. His firm carried on until 1986, when the commissions dried up for good. Breuer, as well as most of his fellow Bauhäuslers and Modernists, had left the world as a new generation was more than eager to move on.
MoMA’s retrospective on Breuer opened the month of his death. Strangely, Philip Johnson was picked as the principal speaker for the opening banquet. Always acutely aware of architecture trends, the formerly self-proclaimed “Mies guy” had fully embraced Postmodernism. In fact, his AT&T Building, with its pink hue and Chippendale top, was under construction at the time of the Breuer show and would soon become an icon of 1980s design. Bob Gatje, one of Breuer’s other associates, recalled in his own book that Johnson shared “belittling comments” about the late architect’s stature at the event, leading Breuer’s wife Connie to later confide in Gatje that she regretted attending.
A greater insult to Breuer’s work would be presented by another fashionable Postmodernist, Michael Graves, when he was selected to design the Whitney’s expansion in 1985. Chosen over Breuer’s old partner Smith for the commission, Graves offered a whir of playful and nostalgic ideas that pushed up, against, and on top of the Breuer building, demolishing neighboring brownstones in the process. Outrage led to increasingly muted proposals until the project was cancelled in 1989. Since the Whitney’s 2015 move into a Renzo Piano building in the Meatpacking District, Breuer’s building has hosted modern and contemporary exhibits for the Metropolitan Museum of Art under its new name, the Met Breuer. Clearly, New York likes him again.
Meanwhile in Atlanta, a back-and-forth over whether or not to replace the Whitney’s close relative has finally been settled. After a 2002 renovation and debates in the years since about embarking on a bigger renovation or replacing the library, the city committed to a $50 million upgrade to Breuer’s building last summer.
An April 2018 community presentation by Atlanta-based Cooper Carry, the firm behind the redesign, showed a downsized facility with designated spaces for the library to lease out and its physical collection cut in half. A fifth-floor amphitheater would be created and Breuer’s roof terrace reopened. The straightforward public plaza would see new lighting, art, and green space aimed at increasing public interaction. But the most notable change showed original concrete panels on the lower levels swapped out for glass in order to bring in more natural light. Despite opposition to the design change from architects and others, the library is committed to the change, and cites a survey it conducted in which 2,333 people said they’d want more windows, to 738 who said they like the facade “as is.” Although historic designation has limited power to protect buildings, the library was unanimously nominated four months later to the National Register of Historic Places and listed on the Georgia Register of Historic Places. Today, the Atlanta-Fulton Central Library is closed for renovations and is expected to reopen (new windows included) in May 2020.
When Breuer presented his ideas for the Whitney in 1963, he said that “its form and material should have identity and weight in the neighborhood of 50-story skyscrapers … it should be an independent and self-relying unit, exposed to history, and at the same time it should have visual connection to the street.” He could just as well have been describing his downtown Atlanta library, surrounded by an intensely urban scene of hotels, office towers, cars, and pedestrians, yet still commanding attention through its forms, materials, and public space. It won’t be pure to Breuer’s vision when it reopens, but its presence will unlikely be diminished.