Buckhead Library: Avant Garde Architecture in the Village

We’re into the dog days of summer and when I was a kid in the early 1960s, usually in July I invariably started to miss school as a place to go. Whenever I felt that way, I’d visit a library. I would have absolutely loved a cool looking public library as spectacular as the one that’s currently in Buckhead. Though it’s more or less standard size (22,000 square feet) and sturdy with cast-in-place concrete walls, this unconventional urban structure pops with post-modernism. I wouldn’t have known that, but I know I would have liked the looks of this library. Covered with slate siding, it’s framed with structural steel beams that rise and fall, often at sharp angles. There’s something special about Buckhead Library.


After its opening in 1989, peer professionals and the press appreciated with gusto the wow factor generated by this styl-ish building designed by an ATL firm, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects (and another colleague named Bray was with them then). It won local accolades from the Urban Design Commission and the Georgia AIA Award of Excellence (both 1990) and then National Awards and Honors from the American Institute of Architects (1991, 1993). The Washington Post was blown away by the building, entitling its review “Spellbound at the Library.” AJC saluted the stimulating effect of the structure, lauding how “Dynamic angles symbolize setting your mind in motion,” high praise for what a library is supposed to do for its patrons.


At first citizens of the Buckhead neighborhood criticized the really rad design of their library, but eventually that faded. That’s because architects Scogins and Elam got it right, using their Buckhead site effectively for the task at hand circa 1989. They kept in mind “The function of today’s public library: a locus for knowledge within a civic landscape bounded by mo-bile sprawl and strip shopping,” a dig at what Buckhead became when it bottomed out in the 1980s before its revival.


Scogins and Elam, now ATL-based at 111 John Wesley Dobbs Ave. 30303, had real foresight in the late 1980s: “The Buckhead neighborhood is in the foreground of a cultural shift where the boutique succeeds the pool hall,” they said. I re-member those drab years when Buckhead, in transition, didn’t seem to know what it was all about. And finally, this branch library opened with fresh perspective, said the architects, “atop a crest that commands a spectacular view of downtown At-lanta.” Appreciative patrons began to commute or walk toward this wonderful place for the particular therapy that only a library can give. And Buckhead began to flourish.


“An array of canopies intensifies the pedestrian scale along Buckhead Avenue,” Scogins and Elam wrote mystically, describing the urban impact of their powerful little masterpiece, “and deposits their reader at the helm of a spectacular city.” I sure wish I’d gone to this Buckhead Library as a kid. But there’s times, when Atlanta wants to be better, there can be very little sentiment and often less regret. The old predecessor Ida Williams Buckhead branch library, which I visited a couple of times, “had become a parking meter…past expired” said the architects. There are times when it’s true, as the expression goes: “A change will do you good.” And has it ever, since this library in Buckhead opened its doors.


– Dr. Paul Hudson

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