Thursday, October 8, 2009

Atlanta Week - Lost and Found

Seeing the above image of Marcel Breuer on the MODA website brought to mind one of my least favourite buildings in Atlanta, the downtown branch of the Atlanta Fulton County Library.

You'd think living in a brutalist modern building would suggest I like brutalist architecture and I have to say, generally speaking, I find it unsatisfactory. As I went to pick up coffee on campus today I noticed the exposed concrete of the building I was entering and thought that in the right hands concrete can be beautiful but it usually isn't, its just tedious. This does not mean I'm an unreconstructed traditionalist - I like my Modernism to be finessed.

Heresy, I know, but there you have it. I'm out of the closet as far as concrete is concerned and please don't anyone try that whole intrinsic finish/pattern/texture twaddle - I've heard it once too often.

So rather than post about the more gentler subject I'd chosen for today I'm indulging myself in a minor rant about another building lost in this city - and there have been many. One being the building below, the Carnegie Library, built in 1902 and torn down in 1977, a victim of the battle between modernism and classicism, the old guard and the new.

What Atlanta got in exchange was the building below: the Central Library as designed by one of the icons of modernism, Marcel Breuer.

Was it fair exchange? I cannot really say I like either building too well: the architecture of the Carnegie Library seemed rather limpid Beaux Arts in character and whereas its replacement has an undoubted forbiddingly butch quality, it is about as subtle as, well, a block of concrete. If the Breuer building reminds you of the Whitney in New York - same architect, same material.

Just before the Olympics came to town in '96 someone had what was left of the Carnegie Library (it had been laid to rest in a field, I heard) resurrected into this kiosk below. It stands on a rather worrying corner of Peachtree Street surrounded by high-rise concrete. It provides shelter for the indigent and a photo opportunity for any tourist brave enough to walk near it.


  1. I worked downtown and spent many lunch hours in the Carnegie. It was always busy, crowded, and had that old library smell. I was there when they tore it down and built the Breuer. I've tried to find ways to like it ever since.

    I guess the inside works but I don't feel good there except in the stacks. Pictures, like yours, of the whole thing never look good to me.

    The angle I do like is walking toward it on Broad Street staring at the Healey Building. I make this walk twice a week.

    It's even better a few hours after a rain. The striations (right word?) on the concrete are diagonal. When wet they make an interesting, textured patchwork, always a bit different.

    Anyway, I kind of like it from Broad Street when it's framed by the Rhodes-Haverty and Carnegie Buildings.

    P.S. Regarding Atlanta's brutalism, I used to hate Emory's Cannon Chapel until I went inside. Lots of nice surprises at Emory, even the huge "Gym" is cool.

  2. For me its the massing of the library - it is sullenly, monolithically squat. However, the ex-Christian Science church in Buckhead is a pretty thing with its impressions of the wooden shuttering - it has a lightness the library does not. If it were not by Breuer would it have ever been built, I wonder?

    I like your idea of viewing the library after rain and in its setting of the Rhodes-Haverty and the Carnegie buildings. Will take your recommendation about Emory! Thank you.