Atlanta's Central Library in downtown has become the focus of a debate about preservation in recent months, following the reemergence of possible demolition plans put in motion years ago but later halted.
While many view the facility as a hulking, antiquated monolith, groups from around the world have criticized plans to demolish the facility. Designed by noted architect Marcel Breuer, the building is arguably one of the most iconic brutalist buildings anywhere, and the culmination of a career that included the Whitney Museum in New York City.
Last night, four key decision-makers — Dr. Gabriel Morley, the new Director of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System; Dean Baker, a board member of the Friends of the Central Atlanta Library (FOCAL); Melody Harclerode, a past President of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and Robb Pitts, a former Fulton County commissioner — got together to discuss the future of the building. (Creative Loafing co-organized the event and Debbie Michaud, CL's editor in chief, moderated it.)
The event, hosted by the Center for Civic Innovation, drew a crowd to the downtown facility, showing just how much interest the discourse has created. The conversation left little to be interpreted about each panel members' stance on the future of not only the building, but the library system in general. It also provided some colorful theatrics and tempers on the cusp of boiling over.
Through it all, former commissioner Pitts did not waver in his steadfastness that the city, in order to be competitive with other "world class" cities, had to build a new public library. A pet project of his for almost a decade, the library in his mind would be both an iconic addition to the city (to rival libraries like those in central Seattle and Chicago), while also being a design-build product (in essence a cost-saving measure of combining design and the contracting of a building).
The dichotomy was not lost on the audience, and Pitts' patience wore thin at continued prodding and questioning of how the decision to replace the building was arrived at and whether studies had been completed to determine the cost of a comprehensive renovation versus a replacement.
By the end of the evening, it was pretty clear that the aesthetics of the existing building did not suit Pitts, and contributed toward his ill feelings. At one point he proclaimed, "I'm no art critic, but I do criticize art," closing out the thought that he greatly disliked the outside of the building.
The other three panelists seemed to lean toward preservation and the continued use of the facility as a library, to various degrees.
Dr. Morley, with less than two weeks under his belt with the Atlanta-Fulton Library system, toed a fine line throughout the evening, emphasizing that whatever the outcome for the building, there are fundamental changes that need to occur in how the system operates, noting that "times have changed; we have to change with them."
A visionary who is setting himself up to overhaul the library system as we know it (think Uber for books, among other things), Morley did acknowledge that the greatest deficiencies in the current building have been caused by 35 years of deferred maintenance on the facility; mostly things that could be addressed through a long-overdue overhaul of the building rather than the construction of a new facility.
Both Baker and Harclerode played off of that sentiment, noting the concept of "demolition by neglect." Baker emphasized that even if a new building were to be built using the funds available, the city would eventually find itself in the same position in another few decades, given the lack of continued support of facilities by the city and county once they are open.
What's to come is hard to know at this point, though it's clear that tensions are running high and time is running out. A commission meeting on the morning of May 18 will likely determine the next steps for the Central Library in Atlanta.