Virtual Activism is the first episode of a 3-part mini-series created by the Modern Architecture Protection Agency (mapa). Upcoming episodes will include a gallery of submissions from the SAVE ME! Design Charrette, background information on the Grosse Pointe Central Library and Marcel Breuer, coverage of the ongoing effort to save the Central Library from demolition, and thoughts on the future of mapa . Stay tuned.
José Manuel Barquero
Ana María León
On January 23, frequent message-board participant 'puddles', aka Brian Buchalski, a designer from Ann Arbor Michigan, posted the following announcement on the discussion page of Archinect.com: "for those of you interested in the work of marcel breuer i just found out that grosse pointe is considering the demolition of his modest & unpretentiously modern central library building."
Buchalski provided several pictures of the Grosse Pointe Central Library, both old pictures from the time of its opening and contemporary ones. He linked to an article arguing the merits of the library building by writer John Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press . And then he launched the following plea: "if any of you have an extra 60 seconds and care about buildings like this then i'd encourage [you] to send a short email to the library board..."
Front terrace, February 3, 2007
His call-to-arms hit a nerve. Not even two weeks before Brian's announcement an extraordinary house designed by Breuer contemporary Paul Rudolph had been torn down in Westport, CT by buyers David and Yvette Waldman so that they could replace it with a newer, more conventional, house. Loss of the Rudolph house (1972-2007) had prompted a bubble of outrage in the architectural and preservation communities, but also a realization that, without explicit protections and meaningful action, more notable examples of modern architecture would be subject to the same end. At the time of the controversy, David Waldman had expressed his exasperation with the roadblocks that had been placed by little-bit-too-late champions of the house and wondered where these parties interested in the fate of the building had been in the months prior to his application for demolition permit when it sat on the market.
Architect Paul Rudolph designed the house at 16 Minute Man Hill.
image source: Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
Immediately after Buchalski's post, the library board that oversees three branches in Grosse Pointe Farms began to receive a rush of letters from architects, designers, and others with an interest in the preservation of modern architecture. And, to the surprise of most of those who wrote, these letters of protest were patiently and considerately answered by the president of the libraries' Board of Trustees, Laura Bartell. A dialogue developed between Ms. Bartell and several of the letter-writers, a give-and-take that evolved into a sort of mission for those protesting the potential demolition.
The library about which Buchalski and the rest of its advocates were concerned was a building designed by Breuer at a transitional phase of his career - after the Bauhaus period in which he had designed his famous chrome and leather cantilever chairs and the Wassily chair , after his subsequent flight from Germany to the Unites States, but before he became renowned for blockbuster projects like the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library , and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Breuer had been working on smaller, primarily residential, projects around the New York area, including his own house in New Canaan completed in 1953, when he was approached by Grosse Pointer and former student W. Hawkins Ferry with the commission for a progressive central library for this small town east of Detroit.
Rendering of the proposed Grosse Pointe Central Library, circa 1949
image source: Grosse Pointe Public Library Local History Archives
The resulting building is evidence of Breuer's mastery of his craft at the time - a sensitively sited and scaled facility with large windows on the north side providing daylight to the reading room. At the behest of locals, including Ferry, Breuer had sheathed this otherwise uncompromisingly International Style building in a deep red brick which matched that of other structures along the street - a move that helped the modern building settle into its particular location in Grosse Pointe Farms. Ferry, the benefactor who had enlisted Breuer and whose family had given the building as a gift to the community, also outfitted the library with artwork specific to this project, pieces by Kandinsky and Calder taking their places among the Breuer furnishings and custom millwork.
Main Room of the Central Branch, circa 1953.
Mobile by Calder in the foreground.
Tapestry by Kandinsky on the rear wall.
image source: Grosse Pointe Public Library Local History Archives
By the time of January's letter-writing, the library board had been working on expansion plans for the central branch for years. The most recent chapter of their effort had involved the 'pro bono' efforts of a firm that proposed replacing the Breuer building with one of their own that could meet the library's needs. While there had been some nodding and pointing about reuse of the existing branch, most of this architect's efforts had led the board to believe that the razing of the Breuer library was the only feasible option.
The letter-writers began to organize themselves to try to discuss how they might provide the library board with alternative views regarding expansion possibilities. With the library board and local architects and community leaders encouraging their efforts, the group, now calling themselves the Modern Architecture Protection Agency (mapa ), developed guidelines and gathered background materials for an open design charrette - a search for ideas.
The original website in which Buchalski's post appeared, Archinect, generously agreed to host a page dedicated to serving as a clearinghouse for information about the charrette. A gmail account was set up to receive any correspondence; an ftp site was set up on the office server of one of the participants in California for storage of photos, drawings, and other resources; a wiki-based page was set up by a participant from Ecuador for development and editing of evolving documents; and a lively email discussion among the organizers (hundreds of emails) assured that this would be a unique, international/multi-state, and almost completely online effort.
The charrette lasted just over two weeks. Fifteen proposals were submitted, coming in from eight states (CA, MI, IL, IN, OH, KY, RI, and FL) and three countries (Ecuador and Germany, besides the US). All tackled the site constraints, program requirements, parking needs, and other issues the library faced in different ways. While some were more provocative and out-of-bounds, others were much more pragmatic - all in all a great effort at brainstorming and creatively developing alternatives that might not otherwise have come to light. With their hopes exceeded, mapa now had to get busy organizing all the material in time for the library board's February meeting less than a week from the charrette deadline.
liberty bell and vado retro collaborate in Indianapolis
collage by Orhan Ayyuce
While the charrette had been going on, mapa 's efforts had come to the attention of many Grosse Pointers. Articles in the local paper stirred the discussion , as did multiple letters to the editor. mapa organizers got random phone calls from locals, sharing information, warmly offering words of support, reporting on library history and current local conversations, and providing assurances that they too were spreading the word about the importance of this building as a community touchstone.
On 26 February, mapa representatives Buchalski and James Fidler, a designer Buchalski credited with originally bringing the plight of the library to his attention, presented the submissions to a packed house at the public board meeting. The design proposals were received graciously (though the board was concerned about some of the liberties taken in some of the proposals) and, most importantly, an open and wide-ranging conversation among board members and people from the community ensued, centering around where the library's expansion process would go from that night forward. An RFQ for architectural services was already in the works, with the goal of having a design and a budget in time for a special assessment tax to be up for vote in November 2007. Some, both in the audience and on the board, felt that more time would be needed and that more community discussion about the fate of Breuer's landmark - and the Ferry family's gift to Grosse Pointe Farms - was necessary.
mapa still had work to do. The charrette materials were slated to be exhibited at Grosse Pointe's Ewald Branch the following week, after which they would be exhibited at the Breuer Central Library itself. The Archinect liaisons were working on getting the results published online. Eventually the group also hoped to exhibit the charrette proposals in other locations.
exhibit of Charrette proposals at the Ewald Branch Library, March 1, 2007
exhibit of Charrette proposals at the Breuer designed Central Library, March 2, 2007
But already mapa had been successful in achieving their original goals. Internal emails early in the process had acknowledged that no member of the group was really intending to be the architect or designer of what the library would eventually build. The group's agenda was simply to brainstorm, to show that there were other options to razing the Breuer building and, toward that end, their objective had been to make a lot of noise in the community of Grosse Pointe Farms and initiate a public discussion of what kind of library the community wanted as it proceeded into the 21st century: a well-loved landmark linked to a famed architect and an important community philanthropist; a suitably-enlarged facility; or both.
mapa would like to thank Archinect, Archinect members, and Grosse
Pointe Library Board Members and Staff for supporting this effort.
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Aaron is an architect, designer and editor living in Brooklyn. He has practiced architecture since 2005, working in Florida, St. Louis and New York, on projects ranging in size from small art galleries and academic suites, to large institutional buildings and master plans. His work has been ...