Architect Marcel Breuer and the Atlanta Public Library
Department of Art History
New York University
New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2001
December 21, 2008
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City — one of architect Marcel Breuer’s most esteemed works — has taken its place among the premier cultural monuments of the modern world. When it first made its appearance in 1966, among those who held it in high esteem and recognized its importance for modern architecture was the then Director of the Atlanta Public Library, Carlton C. Rochell, a man with a keen interest in and a wide knowledge of architecture. Eager to have what he called “a world class building” for the projected new library in Atlanta, and believing it possible to do so by going to a “world class architect”, he reinforced his view by making an analogy to Atlanta’s famed baseball superstar, stating that “ If you want a home run you pick Hank Aaron”. He therefore urged the selection committee of the Library Board to interview Breuer (among others) for the project. The Breuer office in New York received from Atlanta a 275 page program for the new building. The program was intensively adjusted and revised, interpreted and reinvented, by the architectural team in the Breuer office, headed by Breuer’s partner Hamilton Smith with the important contribution of architect Carl Stein. A model was built from the Breuer design, and it was considered by the Board in Atlanta to be a highly successful interpretation of their program.
The resulting Atlanta Central Public Library – construction began in 1977 and was completed in 1980 — is one of the finest buildings of Marcel Breuer’s long career. Probably because the Board members had made very clear to Breuer their admiration for his Whitney Museum, the Atlanta Library reflects an obvious great kinship with the museum. For Atlanta, Breuer reinvented the stepped profile, the grand massing, the few windows, and the severe, hard-edged geometric volumes of the Whitney. It is indeed a world class building by a world class architect. That library is now in danger of disappearing.
The significance of Marcel Breuer and his architecture in the history of modernism was already established by 1956 when he was named — along with Mies von der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Eero Saarinen, Alvar Aalto, and six others — as one of the “form-givers” of the twentieth-century. Breuer had been educated at the Bauhaus in Germany in the 1920s, practiced architecture in London in the mid-1930s, and emigrated to the United States in 1937 at the behest of Walter Gropius to teach at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard and, in partnership with Gropius, to enter into private practice. After the end of the World War II Breuer left Harvard and established an independent and highly successful architectural practice in New York City. With an international team of partners he designed the Unesco Building in Paris; he was the architect of the HUD and HEW federal buildings in Washington, D.C., and of the Grand Coulee Dam Forebay in the state of Washington. The famed complex of Benedictine buildings in Collegeville, Minnesota is his work, as is the education wing of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the United States Embassy in The Hague, and several administrative and laboratory buildings for IBM. Breuer built schools, office buildings, libraries, sacred buildings, and a remarkable number of widely admired private residences. In 1968 he was the recipient of the Gold Medal given by the American Institute of Architects. In 1972-73 — the heyday of Late Modernism – Breuer’s stature was recognized, impressively, by the Metropolitan Museum of New York, New York’s premiere museum. The museum gave him the first one-man show of an architect in its 102 year history. They titled it “Marcel Breuer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” and mounted it in three galleries with a display of photo murals, architectural models, furniture, and tapestries. In its press release the Met referred to Breuer as “One of the 20th century’s most important and prolific architects, a major influence in American architecture and Design.” As recently as 2007 — more than a quarter century after his death — the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. installed a major exhibition entitled “Marcel Breuer: Design and Architecture”, paying particular tribute to his brilliant career as a designer of furniture as well as buildings.
At the time of the initial campaign for the current Atlanta Library, Atlanta was described as “a city with a lot of buildings but not a lot of architecture.” Breuer’s Atlanta Library is unquestionably a work of “architecture.” Its heavy massing and concrete construction represent a mode of design and a material no longer in vogue in parts of this country. But Breuer had a particular interest in the sculptural potential of concrete in modern architecture, as he conceived architecture as sculpture. And concrete was a material that, at the time the Library project was underway, was very cost-effective for a public building.
Tastes change with regard to the appearance of buildings as they do for every cycle of creative activity. Concrete architecture of the 1970s is not at this moment universally appreciated. But to remove a significant modernist monument — important in and for its time and still satisfactorily fulfilling its original function to serve the community — designed by a major architect of historical importance and world renown, would be a serious civic blunder in the cultural history of Atlanta.