How Atlanta Learned to Love (Or at Least Appreciate) Marcel Breuer

One of Marcel Breuer’s

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 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.

Despite opposition, the library is committed to the facelift, 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.” (Cooper Carry)

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.

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