The Atlanta-based Architecture and Design Center (ADC) has undertaken an unsolicited, pro-bono design effort with the assistance of Atlanta architecture firm Praxis3 architecture + multidisciplinary design to show that the Marcel Breuer designed Atlanta-Fulton Central Library can once again be a vital, dynamic part of the Atlanta community. It is our belief that this 20th century architectural masterpiece can be updated to become an iconic and exemplary 21st Century public library.
To this point the design team shows a reprogrammed building with many re-imagined civic and library functions. Key interventions on the interior of the building open up the space and gives it new life. An exterior renovation remakes the plaza into an open and inviting civic space while adding direct access to lower level gallery and auditorium spaces. Lastly, a series of subtle but dynamic media projections enliven the building façade while respecting the building’s historically significant architecture. This effort was completely unsolicited and is intended as a study for the public and various political entities demonstrating what the library can become.
Why ADC Undertook this Effort
As mentioned above, we undertook this effort to demonstrate the Breuer Library’s potential. The drawings and text give just one example of how the library could be used in the future. The primary goal is three fold.
1. To inspire the public, city leaders and others to imagine what a reinvigorated library can be.
2. To show that the building can be adapted to the functional needs of a 21st Century library.
3. To show that a dynamic renovation can be completed that respects the essential character of the building, highlights the positive qualities of the existing architecture and makes it a more inviting place.
How We Envision the Process Unfolding
There are many ways a renovation process can happen, but we believe that any renovation process should utilize the best professional help available, include input from the community, and be open and transparent.
We believe the following elements should be a part of the process:
- Determine the important historic elements of the building that must be preserved, and determine the elements that are not either original or essential parts of the building’s design.
- Determine the structural integrity of the building, and its fitness for modernization, and identify areas in need of repair or upgrade.
- Through study of the existing design documents determine how the building was originally intended to be used.
- Develop a program for maintaining and staffing the building, including identifying sources of revenue.
- Develop the capacity within an existing organization, or create from scratch or a Conservancy Organization that would help fund and maintain the building.
- Develop a menu of possible new functions for the library.
- Develop an urban design plan that puts the library at the center of revitalized downtown neighborhood.
- Allocate the necessary resources to renovate, manage and maintain the building in way befitting its historic character and importance.
- Identify great design professionals and develop a design for the building’s renovation.
- Identify a great general contractor who will thoughtfully and skillfully execute the renovation design.
For the sake of this exercise we’ve engaged these issues broadly to demonstrate their importance. The specific outcome of an official process may vary but the general principals should be followed.
Important Historic Elements
The Central Library is a landmark building by an important 20th Century architect, Marcel Breuer. For this exercise we determined that the building’s exterior, much of the basement level and the two sets of monumental stairs are important. Where possible we’ve tried to avoid touching these areas. Where we did touch the historic elements we followed the mandate that what is new should be distinct from what is existing so that it is clear which elements are historic.
As most of the building’s volume was intended for book shelves or conceived of by Breuer as space which the librarians could do with as they pleased, we did not hold the floors and ceilings as sacrosanct and removed sections of floors as needed to improve the functional and aesthetic qualities of the building.
While many functions are different than in the original design, we programmed the building from bottom to top and front to back following the scheme developed by Marcel Breuer and the original librarians that put active, energetic and busy areas near the ground and near the front of the building, and quieter more private spaces near the top and back of the building. The specifics will likely differ in the actual renovation, but we think this gives a good idea of how the library could be programmed in the future.
We envisioned the library as a community center and public library for an emerging innovative tech village in downtown Atlanta. As the notion of the printed word and its distribution have changed, so has the library. Today’s library buildings serve their diverse communities in any number of ways. Now they include meeting places, technology access centers, connection points with different civic organizations, maker spaces and conference centers as well as serving the traditional library function of distributing books and information in general. The nature and location of the Central Library also give it the potential to house special historical collections and other centralized functions.
ADC’s Library Redesign:
A New Margaret Mitchell Square
Marcel Breuer planned the building so that the main view of the library would be from the northeast where the Peachtree Center MARTA Station exits on to Peachtree Street. Because four streets used to come together at that point, the space is open and provides the clearest view of the library.
This building is part of a rich historic area. The area used to be a gathering place for Atlantans. The neon Coca-Cola sign now on display at the World of Coke was located across the street when the Library opened. The Loew’s Grand Theater, was located where the Georgia Pacific Tower stands today, hosted the premier of “Gone with the Wind”.
Today, the Library contains an archive of Margaret Mitchell’s important documents and artifacts, and it is also the only building that has an address on Margaret Mitchell Square. The square itself is a small triangle of land with fountains and benches located across from the Library between Forsyth and Peachtree Streets.
We propose reworking Margaret Mitchell Square, the Library Plaza, the spaces around the MARTA entrances and the plaza in front of the Georgia Pacific tower and the streets between them, to create a unified sense of place. The streets and plazas would be finished in similar materials to unite the different elements, and pedestrian amenities would be added. This would highlight the Library’s presence and give it a strong connection to Peachtree Street. It could also serve as Atlanta’s town square on special occasions.
In our design the space immediately in front of the library has been made simpler and more
inviting. We’ve redesigned the plaza to create a smooth, continuous connection to the street,
making it an extension of the first floor library. We also added a new entry at the corner of
Forsyth and Williams Streets to provide independent access to the Library’s Lower Level. We
envision the plaza being activated by different uses such as a pop up cafe or farmers market.
The Sub-Basement currently contains a loading dock and 78 parking places. Currently the parking is used by staff. Our design proposes finding parking options for staff offsite but nearby and making the onsite parking available to patrons.
Basement / Lower Level
Design Center Space
Atlanta City Gallery
Service Space and Offices
“Basement” is probably a misleading. Though it’s located below the first floor, it has multiple entry doors and windows due to the slope of land around the building. The Lower Level was designed to contain spaces that are open to the public, but not connected to the core functions of the library, including a theater, restaurant and gallery/event space.
Our design imagines keeping the theater and gallery in place and reopening the restaurant located at the corner of Carnegie Way and Fairlie St. All of these can be important community assets as well as sources of revenue to support building operations. We also propose relocating the children’s section to another part of the building, and replacing it with an Atlanta City Gallery that would use the new entry corner of Forsyth and Williams Streets as an entry. The
Atlanta Design Gallery would tell the story of how the city and region physically developed and provide up to date information on future development plans.
City Commons Room / Information Concierge
Traditional Library Services
Due to the existing building lay out part of the building will have to remain open after hours to allow access to after-hours functions. We used this as an opportunity to create what we call a City Commons Room. We conceived of this space as an extension of the plaza. It is a place where people could meet each other before going into the rest of the library or a location nearby.
At the heart of the City Common Room is the Information Concierge. A modern librarian’s job is as much about helping people navigate a vast amount of information as it is about finding information. The Information Concierge would direct people to information within the library system, connect them with resources that would help interpret information, and direct them to resources outside the library that may also be of interest. Just off the City Commons is a gift shop.
The 1st Floor was designed by Breuer and library officials to be the busy active area of the building. When the building was renovated in 2002 many of the functions in this area were moved to other floors. Circulation dropped after these changes were made.
To help restore higher circulation numbers we propose relocating the traditional library services to the 1st and 2nd floors. The library will be separated from City Commons Room by a seven foot tall glass wall modeled on the glass wall currently on the first floor. We also opened this level to the second floor to more clearly connect the first floor to the rest of the building and give visitors a view of the monumental stair above. This addresses the need for more light and openness in the library.
Second, Third and Fourth Floors
Central Library Functions
Community Live/Work/Learn Space
Margaret Mitchel Gallery
A central library serves as the intellectual and cultural heart of community. It is the one place where everyone can come together and access resources that help them grow their understanding of the world.
Breuer and library leaders envisioned the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floor as public spaces, but spaces that were quieter and more contemplative than the 1st floor. Their intention was to group casual sitting and reading areas around the sculptural stairs and near the few large windows.
The rear section of these floors was conceived of by Breuer as shear volume for the many books and periodicals that libraries needed in 1980. Today these areas can be used as a “Flex Space”
which librarians can rearrange and use to meet the constantly changing demands of the modern library.
Our design uses the areas around the stairs and near the windows as a Community Live/Work/Learn space. Instead of a quite contemplative space, we see this as an active, boisterous place where people come to study, exchange ideas, and learn from one another. The central volume around the stairs is surrounded by work spaces, meeting rooms, children’s spaces and other community oriented functions. We’ve pushed spaces for people back towards the large windows to maximize the amount of light.
On the 2nd floor we propose using part of the Flex Space as galleries to exhibit Margaret Mitchell’s archives, and to exhibit material telling the story of the Central Library, how it was the first central library built after segregation ended, how and why city officials reached out to Marcel Breuer, who Marcel Breuer was and how the design of the building came about. The rest of 2nd floor Flex Space we suggest using for an expanded special collections department. Community meeting and Maker Spaces will also be located here.
On the 3rd and 4th floor we left the Flex Space un-programmed. We envision it being filled with any of a wide variety of emerging innovative 21st century library services, public/private initiatives, or civic engagement programs. The point of the Flex Space is that it never stops changing and developing. One function may occupy it for a few years to be replaced by another when times and technology change. Libraries are ever changing and library building design should reflect that
Conference and Event Space
Courtyard Event Space
We envision a revitalized library at the center of a new entrepreneurial high-tech village serving the entire community. The conference and event space on the 5th floor becomes a link between the public and the library. In the daytime it could be used for continuing education classes and other functions open to the public, in the evenings and on weekends it could serves as a rental event space providing revenue that supports the library’s operations.
Sixth and Seventh Floors
Library System Headquarters
Start-up / Non-Profit Office Space
The 6th and 7th floor are currently used as office spaces. They overlook the fifth floor courtyard. We propose redesigning the Library System offices to make more efficient use of space, and either leasing out unused space to startups or donate the use of the space to local non-profits.
Server Farm / Data Center
The windowless 8th floor was designed for book and equipment storage. In keeping with our concept of the library as the center of an IT village, we propose it be used a server farmer for the library system and county.
What the Breuer Library Controversy Can Teach Us
When ADC first became involved with protecting the Breuer Library we spent a great deal of time explaining to others that our efforts were not motivated by a pending plan to demolish the building, but by a lack of planning to protect the building. Neglect has destroyed more buildings than the wrecking ball could ever hope to.
The Breuer Library was on its way to becoming another victim of neglect. Thanks to the efforts of ADC and other organizations this is a much less likely today than it was at the beginning of 2016, but it’s still a possibility.
The reason the Central Library is in danger has to do with how we look at building maintenance and operations. Often they are treated as simple expense lines on annual budgets, that if reduced will save money. In the long run this leads to degraded conditions in which staff and the public have to work, which lowers operational efficiency and tarnishes an organizations reputation. Buildings are assets that when managed correctly add value to the community. They become landmarks that tourist come to see, places of efficient work, resources for important information, and places where ideas are exchanged, knowledge is grown, and innovation occurs.
The Breuer Library represents an opportunity to demonstrate a different building management process. Instead of determining budgets and work plans based on what it takes to keep a building operational, building management plans should focus on returning value to the communities they serve.
This is just one example of how the Central Library could be reinvigorated. We think it demonstrates the potential of this building. The actual renovation of the library could be vastly different than what we envision, but if the proper resources and time are given for inclusive and professional evaluation, programming and design, and if a plan for the building’s maintenance and operation is developed – the results would be spectacular.
The ADC wishes to thank the following people for their efforts.
For doing the hard work of designing and envisioning the building, from Praxis3:
Zach Brown, Jonathan Cook, Kristin Courson, Ander Hav, Scott Hardin, Daniel Kim, Robert Nuttall, Alicia Rabadan, Matthew Riggs, and Stuart Romm, AIA and David Hamilton, AIA, principals
For sharing their expertise and knowledge:
Jack Pyburn of Lord Aeck Sargent, and Jose Luis
For providing its thoughts on possible program elements:
Friends of the Atlanta Central Library (FOCAL)
For Providing Project Leadership from The ADC Board
Nathan Koskovich, A.I.A. – ADC Board Chair, David Hamilton, A.I.A., Roberta “Bobbie” Unger, F.A.I,A.,