Architect yanks Chattanooga library from Marxist camp

Library staffer Natalie Dugan listens as Bill Wilkerson points out design ornaments at the Chattanooga public library, downtown branch. (Photo David Tulis)

Library staffer Natalie Dugan listens as architect Bill Wilkerson points out details at the Chattanooga public library, downtown branch. (Photo David Tulis)

Following trends in Marxist-oriented architectural theory, the Chattanooga public library is said to reside in an alternate current, the international style. (Photo

Though publicly said to follow Marxist-oriented architectural theory, the Chattanooga public library resides in an alternate creative current, the international style, says architect Bill Wilkerson. But its cantilever wing does little to give the literary bunker an external appearance of lightness or brightness. (Photo

As a young architect, Bill Wilkerson of Chattanooga was on an early project, working with Carol Henley on a big assignment that would be one of the first major projects of the Derthick Henley architectural firm.

He was barely 30 and was on the team involved in the planning of the new Chattanooga Public Library on Broad Street.

By David Tulis  / 92.7 NoogaRadio

Mr. Wilkerson says in a talk Oct. 21 that the library rises from the international theme in architecture. But he says the library shares elements to the so-called Brutalist theory of architecture popular in the Communist world.

The idea that the Chattanooga Public Library, completed in 1976, is a monument of the socialist theory comes from a release about the library that appeared Oct. 20 Chattanooga Times Free Press. The story mentions that the library is a Brutalist or “raw”-style building.

Mr. Wilkerson says of Brutalist style, “typically it was large masses of concrete. OK, this building has large masses of concrete, that’s true. But there’s also a lightness to this building that you would not see in a Brutalist design.”

I ask him if the library is in the Brutalist camp, except it has a capitalist bearing and “freer way” than the buildings in communist capitals.

“That isn’t an unfair way to describe it,” Mr. Wilkerson says. “Some people might consider this building Brutalist. But I’ve never considered it Brutalist.”

Collectivist architectural emphasis

Brutalism became prominent in the heyday of Marxist totalitarian states from the 1950s to the 1980s. Brutalism “became popular with governmental and institutional clients,” Wikipedia says. “Examples are typically massive in character (even when not large), fortress-like, with a predominance of exposed concrete construction, or in the case of the ‘brick brutalists,’ ruggedly combine detailed brickwork and concrete. There is often an emphasis on graphically expressing in the external elevations and in the whole-site architectural plan the main functions and people-flows of the buildings. Brutalism became popular for educational buildings (especially university buildings), but was relatively rare for corporate projects. Brutalism became favoured for many government projects ***.”

Brutalist buildings are ugly, and proud of it.

“In its ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy, Brutalism can be seen as a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of some 1930s and 1940s architecture,” Wikipedia notes.

“Brutalism as an architectural philosophy was often also associated with a socialist utopian ideology ***. This style had a strong position in the architecture of European communist countries from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, GDR, USSR, Yugoslavia). In Czechoslovakia brutalism was presented as an attempt to create a ‘national’ but also’ modern socialist’ architectural style.”

There are many interpretations of contemporary design, Mr. Wilkerson says. Brutalist and international design “don’t have the have the same clear definitions that the renaissance or the Greek or Romanesque *** designs have,” he says. “Those are very clearly defined. Modernist and Brutalist don’t have those clear definitions.”

Improvements set

Mr. Wilkerson recounts some of the basic facts about the library building for his 20 listeners, including Corinne Hill, Natalie Dugan, Richard Beeland and other library staff. The library’s design was “a statement of the progressive nature of our city” and was the city’s first big public building in the international style.

The building cost a F$115 million in tax funds, F$850,000 of that coming from private donors. A significant feature is its rooftop cantilever or wing, which hangs over its front entrance plaza and fountain.

Planned improvements will hide some of the support beams — drop ceilings will come with cheaper lights. The library has a F$1.6 million budget for changes.

Europeans in that era used “large, simple styles,” he said, but the Chattanooga public library is more humanized.

The fourth floor was built for allowing the library to expand its operation. But Mr. Wilkerson says the digital revolution has shrunk space needs, with the fourth floor mostly empty.


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