Prominence of name has never guaranteed the preservation of architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Park Avenue Showroom was demolished in 2013 just blocks from his iconic Guggenheim Museum, Louis Kahn’s Philadelphia commercial storefront was torn down in 2014, just a couple of years after the grand unveiling of his Four Freedoms Park in New York. This month, as Marcel Breuer’s 1966 design for the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan is reborn as the Met Breuer, it’s worth looking at the precarious state of two of his other modernist buildings.
Liz Waytkus, executive director at Docomomo US, wrote this month that the nonprofit organization “is following recent developments concerning two other important Marcel Breuer buildings: the Central Public Library (1980) in Atlanta, Georgia and the Pirelli Tire Building (1970) in New Haven, Connecticut.” She notes that the library is “a likely target for development, closure or demolition,” while the Tire Building is empty and “primarily serves as an oversize IKEA billboard.”
The Tire Building is vacant as it looms over the Connecticut IKEA parking lot, its concrete tower an almost comical contrast to the flimsy furniture advertised in the banners strung across its rectangular windows. Its fate was the result of a compromise in 2003 in which IKEA saved part of the building, but removed the asymmetrical base that once stretched out from beneath the tower, as well as the greenery that surrounded it and emphasized its sculptural form. You can see its current state in this Google Street View capture from this January:
As for the library, Atlanta is focusing its funding on outer branches, and is considering replacing the Brutalist building with a new downtown base. Sean Keenan wrote this month for the Atlanta-based Creative Loafing, that according to Library Board Chairwoman Stephanie Moody, the Breuer library is non-essential. Its circulation is low, and its esteem among some city officials equally dismal. Keenan quotes Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts as saying it “looks like a jail.”
True, Breuer’s buildings aren’t beautiful in a classical sense, but with there’s nothing else like them. The Atlanta library has windows that angle as elegantly as those in the Met Breuer; the Tire Building has a soaring use of concrete similar to the lightness embodied by his best work, like the bell tower of the 1955 St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. And advocacy attention could change their fragile futures.
Back in 2007, Breuer’s seemingly-doomed 1953 Central Library in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, was being considered for demolition. Helped by the World Monuments Fund’s Modernism at Risk program, it’s now being conserved along with its art collection, including a mural by Herbert Matter and a tapestry by Wassily Kandinsky.
The Architecture and Design Center in Atlanta currently has a MoveOn petition underway to protect their city’s Breuer library and rename it after the architect. Perhaps with the opening of the Met Breuer, the architect’s legacy beyond the Manhattan museum can get more national attention before more of it disappears, or is turned into the backing for a billboard.