Threatened in Atlanta: Breuer's Last Design
By Angela Serratore | Online Only | Mar. 23, 2009
One of the most notable pieces of modern architecture in the American South may be demolished and replaced with a new design.
Atlanta officials are pushing for the demolition of Marcel Breuer's Fulton County-Central Library, conceptualized in 1969 and completed in 1980, a year after the architect's death.
Last November, Fulton County voted in favor of a referendum that would direct $275 million dollars to its libraries. If private donations come through, $84.4 million of that would go to a new central library in Atlanta's downtown.
The current economic climate may impede those matching donations, however, and preservationists fear that the county will sell the library to raise money for a new one. Given the library's prime downtown location, the site could become attractive to developers of large-scale commercial spaces.
"It would be difficult or impossible to find a buyer interested in preservation of the library if the goal is maximum price for the property," said Thomas Little, chair of the Georgia chapter of Documentation and Conservation of Sites of the Modern Movement (DOCOMOMO), in an e-mail.
On Mar. 11, the Georgia chapter of DOCOMOMO, organized a tour of the library, the second such event. Last fall, the group presented a symposium that invited Breuer scholars and other preservationists to speak about the significance of the Central Library.
Did You Know?
Kykuit, a National Trust Historic Site north of New York City, owns a Breuer design. Designed in 1948 for a Museum of Modern Art exhibition, the house was scheduled to be demolished, but John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased and relocated the house to Kykuit's grounds. The Rockefeller family used it from 1950 until 2007, when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund assumed stewardship and began restoring the structure. Read more about Kykuit
Surrounded by skyscrapers, the library can be easy to overlook.
"A lot of people don't know it's there," says Mark McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust, based in Atlanta. "I think the building is one of Atlanta's finest works of architecture, and I we should do our best to advocate that it could be continued to be used as a library. Atlanta just does not have many buildings by world-renowned architects."
The leading voice in the campaign for a new Central Library says the building's importance isn't immediately apparent. "From a design point of view, it probably means a lot to those in the [architecture] field, but for the average citizen who sees it, it's just not there," Commissioner Robb Pitts told the architectural publication Metropolis in February of 2009.
In 1973, Breuer became the first architect to be granted a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, along with his Harvard colleagues Paul Rudolph and Philip Johnson, is often called part of the foundation of American Modernism.
Breuer's Central Library is widely recognized by scholars to be his last fully realized project, and its design is closely tied to that of New York City's Whitney Museum, perhaps his most important work in the United States. The structure is marked by textured concrete panels and several beveled windows that face the streetscape. Like the Whitney, the library's upper levels cantilever over its entryway, creating an open plaza at street level, a concept that reinforces its accessibility.
The library, Little says, "represents the beginning of Atlanta's desire to become a 'world-class' city, which led to construction of other landmarks such as Richard Meier's High Museum and its successful bid for the 1996 Olympics."
Local artist Max Eternity, along with New York University Breuer scholar Isabelle Hyman, have turned to the blogosphere as a grassroots method of garnering support for the library. To demolish a modern structure so integrated with its environment, Eternity writes on the blog, "seems sociologically, aesthetically, and historically incomprehensible—to say nothing of economically wasteful."
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