Central Library’s modern design intended to tell the world: ‘Atlanta has arrived’

By David Pendered

The architectural style of Atlanta’s Central Library isn’t to everyone’s taste. However, the possibility of losing another signature building appears to be galvanizing support to preserve it as a library or other public use.

Atlanta City Councilmember Cleta Winslow summed up the crosscurrent of feelings about the library’s architectural style, a descendant of modernism named brutalism for its use of raw concrete.

Central Library, planes

The multiple planes of Central Library provide an interplay of contrasts, punctuated by the sculpture located at the front of a terrace. The postmodern 191 Peachtree Tower, in the background, opened a decade after Central Library. Credit: David Pendered

While it leaves some cold, it does represent an important era in Atlanta – the culmination of Maynard Jackson’s two terms as the first black mayor of Atlanta.

“Years ago, we had a beautiful library [with] two lions on either side as you go up the steps, just gorgeous,” Winslow said last week at a council committee meeting. “I’ll put it like this: It was much different from the building now. The building with lions spoke to people. It said, ‘I’m here. I’m strong. I’ve been here for many years and I’d like to stay.’ But it didn’t stay.”

And with that, Winslow said she would support legislation asking Fulton County’s board of commissioners to preserve the building as a library or, at the least, as a dynamic public space.

The architectural style of Central Library doesn’t necessarily tug at heartstrings. It wasn’t supposed to. It was supposed to proclaim Atlanta’s arrival as a modern city.

Atlanta’s civic leaders wanted a building just as modern as the image Atlanta wanted to present to the world. What better way to do that than hire the New York architect who had designed the acclaimed Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Marcel Breuer designed that building, which opened in 1967 and now is known as the Met Breuer.

Central Library, rocket skylight

The skylights of the Central Library are reminiscent of a space rocket’s engines. Space exploration was at the forefront of the national conscience when the library was designed. Credit: David Pendered

“At the time plans for Central Library were moving forward, Atlanta was facing racial issues, but Atlanta united in the 1970s to move forward with Central Library because people thought this was important to our city,” said Melody Harclerode, past president of the Atlanta chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Jackson had won election as mayor in 1973 and, within a few years, Atlanta voters had approved a referendum to sell bonds to build Central Library. The library had to make a statement.

“We were trying to be a world class city, so we got a world class architect,” Harclerode said. “Central Library is a progression from the Whitney because Breuer started to undulate form. He, as an architect, was trying to not rest on his laurels, but to manipulate form.”

Harclerode noted that brutalism was falling out of favor by the time the building opened, in 1980. By that time preferences were shifting to sleek skyscrapers such as the Georgia Pacific Tower. It, too, is a modernist design, with multiple planes vying for attention. But the pink granite that covers the fascade softens the building’s appearance. It was completed in 1981, a year after Central Library, and provides a sharp juxtaposition to the library a few blocks away.

Central Library, mass

Central Library was designed in such a way that its mass appears greater than it actually is. The purpose is to give the building greater authority, even if it’s not the tallest building in the neighborhood. Credit: David Pendered

The shift in aesthetic preference continued with the development of 191 Peachtree Tower. The postmodern design blends flame-finished Rosa Dante granite with gray tinted glass, all topped by two crowns that emporis.com describes as: “[S]even full stories of interwoven arches and domes that culminate in a ring of columns that are illuminated at night.”

Central Library certainly is able to carry its weight in this neighborhood. Herclerode said one feat of brutalism is that the raw concrete appears much more massive than it is. This heft serves as a counterbalance to the height of surrounding buildings, she said.

Civic leaders now face the decision of what to do with Breuer’s last work, which he completed with longtime collaborator Hamilton Smith. Breuer died in 1981, at age 79.

Repair costs could easily exceed $9 million, by some estimates. Fully repurposing the building could cost much more, but could revitalize the building by offering programs that attract the growing number of downtown residents.

Exasperating the issue is the notion that, in Central Library, Breuer succeeded in achieving his aspiration that the structure itself is as significant a piece of art as what it protects, according to Harclerode.

In addition, the library building is as protective of its literary collections as Richard Meier’s High Museum of Art design is protective of the enclosed artworks. Winslow said the idea in at the outset was for the library to have few windows to protect the book collection. Meirer’s museum aims to protect the collection from light.

“I see a loveliness,” Harclerode said of Central Library. “It’s a progression of what he went in with at Central Library and started to undulate from after the Whitney.”

Central Library, enchanted forest

There’s room for whimsy inside Central Library, even though the exterior may seem less than inviting to some readers. Credit: David Pendered

Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond underscored the notion that Atlanta is a city never too busy to raze. At the same meeting where Winslow spoke about Central Library and the long-since demolished Carnegie Library, Bond said the major issue in the debate over the library’s fate is that services of a central library remain in Downtown Atlanta, close to transit.

That said, he indicated that historic preservation isn’t far behind.

“I believe in preserving the library,” Bond said. “I remember the previous library and it was fabulous. I’ve seen the powers that be, not always city powers, go after some of the most beautiful architecture with almost an insane zeal to put up something bigger and brighter.

“It’s almost as if the city of Atlanta has adopted the abusers’ syndrome from the city being burned,” Bond said. “So, we’re going to out burn you, Sherman, and tear down some of our great structures.”

Central Library, stairway descending

The use of multiple planes is carried from the exterior to the interior of the building, all illuminated by the rocket-shaped skylights. Credit: David Pendered

Central Library, stairwell looking up

The central staircase of Central Library continues the interplay of multiple planes, with raw concrete creating a rough texture. Credit: David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

2 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    Demolish the Breuer monstrosity and rebuild the Carnegie library in its place. The Carnegie building would be smaller and better suited for today’s need.Report

    Reply
  2. DougAlexander says:

    I have hated this building since day one. It IS brutalism incarnate and as such is antithetical to this Southern city which in most other respects and design (Peachtree Center notwithstanding) is very welcoming. This Central Library doesn’t welcome you, rather it yells at you to stay away. There is very little that the 1970’s offered that wasn’t either kitschy or tacky or ugly. This building embodies all three. Let it go.Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?