Commentary: Before we knock holes into Central Library, we should be certain that’s what Atlantans really want

We should cherish the historic buildings we still have and be more careful with the ones we’d like to call historic in the future
Atlanta-Fulton Public Library new central library
A rendering of what the new Central Library could look like.

Atlanta-Fulton Public Library

On April 11th, officials with the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System unveiled what they envisioned to be a new and improved Central Library, the 230,000-square-foot Brutalist building standing at the corner of Forsyth Street and Carnegie Way.

For a building that has been both eyed for demolition and preservation, architects Cooper Carry proposed a mix: replacing sections of the library’s concrete exterior with rows of windows and removing a central elevator shaft for an atrium, both supposedly to flood the interior with sunlight. The fifth floor would get an amphitheater with a big glass wall that opens onto a currently-underutilized roof terrace that will be marketed for special events. Spaces the library can’t afford to renovate would be leased to other businesses in order to generate revenue and add foot traffic. Overall, the library will downsize its own use of the building and cut its physical collection size in half, in contrast to other central libraries around the country that continue to grow in size and service.

These changes, albeit as minor or major as a person considers them, were sure to generate discussion. But how we got to the point of those changes making the cut—particularly to a public building dedicated to information and where everyone is welcomed—was decided by too few people.

Known for its monumental exterior of raw concrete (“béton brut” in French, thus “Brutalist” architecture) and its carefully-placed windows meant to achieve the right quality of light and reduce energy costs, the library was originally designed by Bauhaus master Marcel Breuer, his associate Hamilton Smith, and the local architecture and engineering firm Stevens & Wilkinson. Although delays in funding meant the building wasn’t ready to open until 1980, the preliminary design was first shown to the public in 1971. The New York-based architects even bought an airline ticket so they could show off their wooden model in Atlanta. (The model ended up flying with the baggage instead.)

Carlton Rochell, the library director at the time of the design, charged Breuer with designing a library not simply to house books but to share information as a cultural and educational center. In his design there was not only space for bookshelves but also for meeting rooms, a large auditorium, a TV studio, computers, and even a cafe. Ella Gaines Yates, the library director at the time of construction, praised the building’s flexibility, it’s openness and accessibility, and the large crowd of new patrons it drew after its opening. Not only could visitors read a book or listen to music, they could also play board games, check out home and garden tools, or take a yoga class.

The library shares many design aspects with the original Whitney Museum in New York, which was completed in 1966 and restored and renamed in 2016 to honor Breuer. In her initial critique for the New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable declared that at “first the Whitney repulses; then it intrigues; and finally it is embraced.” The same could be said about its Atlanta cousin. To some it’s a cold and unforgiving eyesore, but to others it’s a dash of creativity breaking away from downtown’s steel-and-glass office boxes.

Whether people love it or hate it, it’s clear that many people far and wide do indeed care, or at least have an opinion, about this building. In 2009, when the Fulton County Board of Commissioners announced it was issuing bonds to fund renovation of library branches—and floated the idea of replacing Breuer’s final building—architecture aficionados, historic preservationists, and downtown residents strongly pushed back by speaking out at public meetings, signing petitions, and launching social media campaigns. Library officials took notice and decided in 2016 to revert back to their original idea of renovating the Central Library.

However, when the plans were finally revealed for the building’s redesign, just 39 members of the general public—fewer than one-half of one one-hundredth of one-percent of Fulton’s more than 1 million residents—showed up. Why such a low turnout?

The problem isn’t that residents have chosen not to participate in the process; it’s that they weren’t given the opportunity to truly engage in the process.

There are three levels of relationship that citizens can have with their local government. The first is information: a one-way relationship in which the government produces and delivers information to its citizens. The next is consultation: a two-way relationship where citizens provide feedback on issues presented by the government. Finally, there is participation: a partnership with the government in which citizens actively engage in decision-making while final authority and responsibility still remains with the government.

The county commission called for participation when it approved a contract last year to begin reprogramming and redesigning the Central Library. These early phases of this project were supposed to involve “major public input,” multiple engagement sessions with stakeholders, and a series of community presentations at each step of the process.

But somewhere along the way, the engagement process got seriously scaled back. Some meetings and presentations were never scheduled and the ones that were weren’t well-advertised. According to documents I received in response to an open records request, only 26 members of the general public had any official input prior to the April 11th presentation: 19 people at community meetings, 5 people at a business roundtable, and 2 people responding to an online survey. (The link that was initially shared with the public was broken.)

After getting an earful regarding the lack of engagement so far, library officials are now asking for the public to vote on whether or not to add windows to the front façade via a two-option online survey. On May 8th, the system is hosting another meeting at the Central Library to gauge public support and report on the survey results.

For all of our talk about being an international city, Atlanta isn’t graced with much internationally-significant architecture. We can blame Sherman for some of the buildings we lost over a century and a half ago, but we have continued to wipe away much of the identity and character we have built since. We should cherish the historic buildings we still have and be more careful with the ones we’d like to call historic in the future, too. And if we do decide to knock some holes into the library’s face, it should be a collective decision, one vetted time and again by large numbers of people, all the while asking if we will come to regret this decision in the decades to come.

Kyle Kessler is a licensed architect and downtown resident. A leader in organizations that combine arts, culture, and history with community development, Kessler works as the advocacy manager at the Center for Civic Innovation.