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Library's avant-garde
architecture stands test of time

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Sitting in the small office, on worn-out and mismatched furniture, the architects noticed the speckled box. It was a small, paper-covered box sitting on the desk.

In a librarian's cramped and cluttered office, the box seemed unique and, somehow, brilliant.

"It was," explained architect Merrill Elam, "a really good-looking paper that the box was wrapped in ... It was a gray-speckled box. It was the traditional librarian's box. Back when you had index cards, they would keep them in this box."

When designing the Clayton County Headquarters Library on Battle Creek Road, which was completed 20 years ago, Scogin, Elam and Bray Architects, Inc., stole the speckled pattern from the library box for the outside of the library building.

The design is sometimes still controversial, according to Carol J. Stewart, the director of library services who, a few decades ago, had an odd-looking box on her desk. It shows, though, how the library was designed to recast elements of the traditional library in a new and contemporary way.

"I think of libraries as being exciting, up-to-date places and the more traditional buildings would send the wrong message," Stewart said.

The building has been featured in five architectural publications, and has won both library and architecture awards. It also has anchored the county's library system for two decades, become a beloved building, and an identifiable and unique presence.

Elam, talking to the Clayton News Daily on Tuesday about the architecture of the library, said it was important, in the design to have an building with personality -- "pizzazz" -- that was also open, accessible to everyone, and like "a K-Mart for information."

"The idea," Elam said, "was that it would be where you could walk right in and get what you need at the library, and anybody would feel welcome. That was the philosophy, and still is, I think, of the Clayton County Library System.

"It's a totally open, public building. It is interesting and important that public libraries are really, probably, the only totally public buildings in our country anymore. If you go to city hall, or a courthouse, or any of those places, you have to go through security. In our libraries, you can just open the front door and walk in."

In the architectural design, Elam said, the accessibility was expressed through front steps, the metal sign saying, "library," and the centrality and dominance of the front door. The openness was communicated with high ceilings, natural light, clean sight-lines and a large reading room.

The reading room -- a seemingly vast expanse of tables, laid out under exposed wooden beams and an open space infused with the day's light -- also takes a traditional aspect of a library and reworks it in a contemporary way.

"There's a tradition, in libraries, of reading rooms," Elam said. "In early libraries and even, still, in some very specialized libraries, books would be kept in 'closed stacks' -- where you'd have to ask the librarians for books -- and then the reading room was where you would sit.

"Information is so dispersed, today, though. Information is dispersed electronically, but by that zone, with the clerestory windows, and the higher part of the roof and the natural light, the reading room, where those tables are, is the direct child of the idea of the grand reading room in traditional libraries."

Elam, along with Mack Scogin, also designed the Morrow and Riverdale libraries. She said she remembers the building being a little controversial when it was first built, but that the public seemed to like it more as time went on.

Stewart said she thought the highest recognition the library ever received was when, a few years after it was finished, a class of high school seniors chose to have their photos taken at the headquarters library.

In 1989, Time Magazine did a review of the latest architectural style, "Deconstructivism," and found the whole genre "anxious" and "determinedly unlikable," but pointed to some likable structures, including the Clayton County library.

Deconstructivism was defined, at the time, as works which "disturb our thinking," and are "unsettling." The genre was, to a large extent, a style of criticism. Though the Battle Creek Road building may have pushed some people's ideas about libraries, Jude LeBlanc, an associate professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said the building actually fits into a sort of "realism."

"[Scogin and Elam] look critically at the reality of the context within which they find themselves," LeBlanc said. "They look at the reality of what they're dealing with and they make poetry with what they have at hand."

According to LeBlanc, the structure "doesn't pretend to be what it isn't," doesn't have any facades or pretensions. With the work of Elam and Scogin, he said, "it's an ideal about, 'what you see is what you get,' an ideal about literal honesty."

The style has been characterized as optimistic, because it assumes people want the truth of a building, and not a facade. That ideal also matches the vision of a public library, shared by Elam, Scogin and the Clayton County Library System -- the optimistic expectation that people want information, want to read and learn, and are curious enough to want to open a speckled, black-and-white box, to see what's inside.

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Box:

Facts about the headquarters library

Total cost: $3.15 million

Construction cost: $2.1 million

Square feet: 32,600

Paid for by: State of Georgia (about $2.2 million) and Clayton County (more than $900,000)

Book capacity: 140,000 volumes

Materials: Steel frame, long-span truss joints of wood and steel, metal, corrugated siding

Practical advantage of design: Lots of light, relatively low energy expenses, flexible space

Practical disadvantage of design: Lack of storage space

Awards won: American Institute of Architects/American Library Association Library Buildings Award, 1991, national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects, 1989