Material Air: Expansive Variety in a Downtown Library

Presented by: Kevin Moore

Increasingly, adaptive reuse has become an innovative practice, meeting new challenges with economically feasible and inherently sustainable solutions. By embracing our existing building stock as a valuable resource, Interior Architecture and Design are now leading design disciplines. Entirely new experiential potentials lie in maximizing effects with a minimum of resources. Curious to the interior, and especially renovations, the selection and manipulation of materials can result in drastic changes that show few traces in typical drawings. This sensibility assumes less formal invention and more careful consideration of small but profound environmental effects.

Commissioned in the late 1960's but not completed until 1980, the Atlanta Central Library is the final building by celebrated modern architect Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). The bold exterior of the library looms mysteriously at the edge of Margaret Mitchell Square. It is unmistakably accomplished, but the building is not universally lovable (Bafna, 56-59). Likewise, the interior is simultaneously open and dark, expansive and constricted, noble and meager. With a large floorplate, the library is expansive. Carpet and ceiling tile make this public openness possible, but a uniform floor and ceiling leaves little variety. To fully embrace new technologies and fluid work habits, the library must now accommodate a growing range of activities. In this context, a 10-week studio proposed a renovation to anticipate a diversity of activities including quiet study, group tutoring, video production, language classes and public lectures. Students proposed an appropriate but expansive range of luminous, acoustic and thermal qualities for the downtown library. Here, air is proposed as an aesthetic and performative material. Filled with air-scattered light, vibrating sound and buoyant heat, air is an immersive medium (Gibson, 14). Through the design of an integrated interior, air can be given quality. 

With a sky-lit central stair and sparse windows, the Atlanta Central Library is defined by bright pockets of reflected light set against a field of linear downlights. This uniform fluorescent lighting suppresses the uniqueness of the large windows. As a result, many students developed proposals to re-organize light in the library. In many cases, natural light now penetrates or reflects material texture and color as a noticeable effect. A combination of ambient light and discrete fixtures also enhances the sense of lush light-filled air. Many students also developed proposals to re-organize sound in the library. With changing work habits and expanding choices of media, libraries are active places to engage with ideas through collaborative work and debate (Mattern, 286). Noise is now productive, but silence remains its own luxury. In this case, absorptive, reflective and resonant surfaces can orchestrated a variety of acoustic places—from quiet refuges to boisterous hangouts. Students were also challenged to propose a variety of microclimates as an alternative to uniformly conditioned space (Yoos). The raised plaza and rooftop terrace, for example, are tantalizing as exterior public spaces; students expanded their visual, acoustic and thermal impact to the interior.

In 1950, Marcel Breuer claimed: “Somebody said ‘architecture is frozen music.’  This is true, though I have my reservations about the word ‘frozen.’  How about opening the doors, sliding open the windows or walls, going in and out, moving the chairs?  How about the curtains, the changing light, color, and not only see or photograph architecture, you live in it. It should be alive, not ‘frozen.’” (Breuer, 256) This definition of space is mutable but also more generous. This generosity is necessary in a contemporary public library. In this case, the selection and manipulation of materials structure an experiential mass of material air into an expansive and meaningful variety.


  • Bafna, Sonit. “Attention and Imaginative Engagement in Marcel Breuer’s Atlanta Public Library.” In Rethinking Aesthetics: The Role of Body in Design, edited by Ritu Bhatt, 51-84. New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Breuer, Marcel. Marcel Breuer: Buildings and Projects 1921-1961. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962.
  • Gibson, James J. The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1966.
  • Mattern, Shannon. “Resonant Texts: Sounds of the American Public Library.” The Senses & Society 2:3 (Fall 2007): 277-302.
  • Yoos, Jennifer. “On Seeing Air,” ARCADE 28.3 (Spring 2010). Accessed December 20, 2011.