Bauhaus meets Grosse Pointe.
Compared to architect Marcel Breuer's most iconic work (think Breuer House I, the Whitney Museum, UNESCO Headquarters), the Grosse Pointe Library seems unexpectedly quiet and restrained- missing are the dramatic cantilevered rectangles of his early Bauhaus boxes or the brutish concrete spectacles of his late career. But maybe this uncharacteristic subtlety is what makes the architect's small library design in suburban downtown Michigan so special, its pared down forms and casual transparency offering more than just access to books. Constructed in 1953, the Grosse Pointe Library was one of Breuer's earliest public commissions in the United States. At a time when Detroit's suburbs were undergoing rapid growth, the Grosse Pointe communities looked to expand and improve public services (like a new centrally located library) for a booming population. On the recommendation of local architectural historian and art collector, W. Hawkins Ferry (who had become acquainted with Breuer at Harvard Graduate School of Design), the library board commissioned the Harvard Five modernist to design a new, more forward-looking public building, despite the local preference for more traditional architectural styles.
Located on Kercheval Avenue, the brick library stands as a simple two-story, rectangular block- its most defining feature a glass curtain wall that covers most of the front elevation and allows views to and from the bustling street. The facade is flat and ordered with refined proportions and straightforward geometry that easily blend with the more conventional commercial buildings of the downtown. Though the main entrance is an unadorned pair of glass doors, large aluminum letters in a distinctly modern font leave no question to the architect's aesthetic leanings (for me those letters are the best part of the exterior). Breuer's simple but accessible treatment of the library facade continues with slot windows wrapping around the building, the geometric glass breaking up the uniform expanses of red brick. On the interior, the library feels relaxed and familiar with stacks of books and a double-height reading room illuminated by warm, natural light, while a free spanning concrete frame provides maximum flexibility to the design's open layout. Embodying the postwar era's boundless optimism, the library is meant to be more than just a repository of books. Breuer envisioned the building as a meeting place for the Grosse Pointe communities, the open and light-filled interior becoming the area's "living room."
Though Breuer designed the building and its furniture, the library also holds a number of significant works by some of the twentieth-century art world's most important names. At the time of the library's dedication, W. Hawkins Ferry (working with Breuer, who wanted the library to be a synthesis of architecture, art, and furniture) donated an Alexander Calder mobile and a large tapestry based on Wassily Kandinsky's late work. Over time, Ferry would donate other pieces of art to the library, including a mural by graphic designer Herbert Matter and a Lyman Kipp sculpture that stands just outside the building's front entrance. Collectively, these pieces give the small library an air of cultural importance within the larger city. This is a place where people could access books, art, and a feeling of community, though in a segregated Grosse Pointe, this meant people that were wealthy and white.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Breuer's small library was deemed inadequate for the new era of library-goers. After an initial decision to demolish the building generated overwhelming support for the preservation of Breuer's design, the library board reconsidered and launched a campaign to restore and expand the modernist landmark. You can read more about the efforts to save the building here.
Have a good weekend.
Image at top:
Grosse Pointe Public Library, Grosse Pointe Farms (1953), Marcel Breuer. Courtesy of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/], from Flickr.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.