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Breuer’s Grosse Pointe Library to Be Spared?

September 25, 2007

by John Gallagher

It looks as though a library designed by Marcel Breuer in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, will be spared the wrecking ball. The local community library board met last night to evaluate an expansion plan designed by Boston-based designLAB architects. The scheme retains the original, 1953-vintage building and doubles its space with a sympathetic, Breuer-inspired addition. Although the board is not scheduled to vote on the scheme until October 22, momentum has decisively shifted away from an earlier push to demolish Breuer’s only Detroit-area building.

Breuer’s Grosse Pointe Library
Photo © John Gallagher
Opened in 1953, the Grosse Point Public Library is the only Detroit-area building designed by Marcel Breuer

Breuer’s Grosse Pointe Library
Photo © John Gallagher
The interior features a double-height main reading room that features signature Breuer elements including exposed structural elements.

Breuer’s Grosse Pointe Library
Image Courtesy designLAB
designLAB has designed a proposed addition to the rear of the Breuer building that would double the library’s size, while retaining the original architect’s aesthetic.

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Breuer was already famous for his furniture and residential designs by the early ’50s when he crafted the library. It is a small but elegant structure, two stories tall, with a front facade of unadorned brick that echoes traditional building materials in Grosse Pointe. Generous fenestration allows daylight into a double-height main reading room that features exposed structural elements and beams.

Members of the library board had recently complained that the 17,000-square-foot structure lacked adequate space for administration, computers, and children’s activities—prompting discussions last year about whether or not it should be razed in favor of an all-new facility. But when Laura Bartell, the then-president of the board, stated publicly that Breuer’s building was “pretty undistinguished’ and not worth preserving, her remarks prompted a flood of e-mails and local protests. The library hired designLAB in June to develop a scheme for saving the building.

Robert Miklos and his team from designLAB propose adding onto the rear of the current building in what is now a parking lot, creating something of a mirror image of Breuer’s structure. The new space would include an interior courtyard, a gesture that Breuer included in many of his houses but didn’t have room for in the original library. The children’s reading area will be four times the size it is now, and there will be expansive space for computers and administration. A new underground garage will relieve parking problems.

In presenting this scheme to the community last week, Scott Slarsky of designLAB explained that his firm conducted extensive research in Breuer’s archive at Syracuse University, trying to imagine how the celebrated architect would approach the project. He described the attempt to channel Breuer’s spirit and signature style as “séance architecture.”

Assuming that the library board approves designLAB’s scheme later this month, it must next seek municipal approval and raise the $24 million necessary for construction. Groundbreaking could occur in the spring of 2009.

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