Georgia Tech architecture professor on why Central Atlanta Library must be preserved

Sonit Bafna used to visit the Central Atlanta Library almost every week when he was a PhD student at Georgia Tech in the ’90s.

Since then, Atlanta has seen unprecedented growth and change, and even the long-neglected downtown area where the decades-old library is located is fast approaching a major overhaul.

But the Marcel Breuer-designed concrete block of a library that holds court over downtown streets near Woodruff Park has hardly changed—save for severe deterioration and some redecorating—since it was completed in 1980.

Now, Bafna is an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture, and the library’s Brutalist design that he’s come to admire is the subject of proposed amendments that have other downtown dwellers up in arms.

Architecture firm Cooper Carry is currently drafting plans for Central Atlanta Library’s $50 million renovation, and the latest renderings showed, among other changes, windows chiseled into Breuer’s final creation. (He died in 1981.)

“There are only a few buildings in Atlanta that were [designed] by modern masters,” Bafna told Curbed Atlanta, nodding to the late Michael Graves, who designed Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, and Richard Meier, the architect behind the High Museum.

Therefore, Bafna believes the library’s iconic, rugged facade abutting downtown’s Forsyth Street should be left alone during the repairs.

Brutalism, by definition, Bafna explained, is an approach to architecture in which “the physical structure should drive the form of the building.” Usually, this means designing bulky, tough buildings that can be repurposed when one institution has run its course.

Breuer’s library, for instance, was designed with an open, department store-style interior layout, which left decoration and programming to the librarians’ discretion.

“For a time about 10 or 20 years ago, it became fashionable to criticize Brutalist buildings because they did not age well; they looked a little bit depressing; they were grey in tone, and they sort of were associated with architects imposing their will on the community,” Bafna said.

“They’re very assertive in their surroundings,” he added, noting that the design style has become somewhat coveted with age.

“If this [Breuer] building is gone, Atlanta will lose quite a significant part of its architectural legacy—its character—which is why there’s been this backlash against modifying the building,” Bafna said.

The Central Atlanta Library, however, is actually not a by-the-book Brutalist creation, according to Bafna. “It is Breuer trying to rethink postmodernism in his own terms—and very late in his career,” he said.

The front facade gives the illusion of structure, “but in the Atlanta public library, you are not aware of the physical structure. The shape of the building—the facades and all that—actually hides the [main structure],” Bafna continued.

“Nobody’s really building like that anymore, and there are only a few of them left, so we should preserve them,” Bafna said.

As for the windows Cooper Carry’s pitched for the front facade, Bafna said that idea isn’t the solution to some patrons’ complaints about a lack of natural lighting.

“I think there’s a mismatch between what people think they will like and what they will actually like,” he said. “My sense is that, yes, the library is darker than what you’d expect on many public buildings. It has less natural light. But in a sense, it’s not aesthetically bad.”

Books and sunlight don’t really agree with one another, Bafna said. Plus, the building was designed so the light would bounce around its sharp edges in creative ways.

“Reducing lights to specific locations creates a very nice dramatic quality in the light,” Bafna said. “It’s a little bit like the kind of light you’d have in the 1950s film noir movies. The light is a bit moody. There’s a little drama in the lighting.”

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Bafna’s been teaching at Georgia Tech since 2002, and he’s dicussed Breuer and the importance of the library many times during his tenure. During a design studio course he led in 2016, he asked students to create their own versions of a library for the future.

Using Central Atlanta Library as their clay—some built off the existing structure; others wiped the slate clean—his pupils sketched blueprints for libraries that no longer focused on storing books.

“One group of people thought that the library could be a civic center,” Bafna said. “If there’s an election going on and someone wants to give a speech or talk or convene at a public place, the modern library could be the place to go.”

Another group imagined the library as a monastery: Half of the building would be used as a public sanctuary for reading and reflection, while the rest would be designated as more private spaces for resident monks and scholars.

Check out the renderings below for glimpses at the students’ ideas for a library in the digital age, with brief descriptions provided by Bafna.

Ghazaleh Coulter: Scholars’ Center

Juntao Guan and Jonathan Franklin: The library as a monastery

The library is envisioned as a secular monastery—a public space of retreat. It has a large central hall, with an immediate access from the street for people to stop by and sit a quite reflective moment, in a large, light-filled space with framed views of the sky. The core functions of the new library—searching for material, consulting librarians, and downloading electronic books—are handled here. At the back is a narrow bay of private reading and discussion rooms, akin to monks’ cells and the librarians are housed in offices looking over the hall. At the center is a cubical stack that celebrates the physical book.

Michele Vitulo: The new scriptorium

Ke Fan: Stacks as rooms

Sandy Courtois and Max Boston: Library as a Market-hall

One of Bafna’s students even shared a three-dimensional view of his team’s work on YouTube:

For those interested, there’s another community engagement meeting planned for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the library to discuss the proposed renovations.

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