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Here are the three teams who could redesign MLK Library

Designed by Mies van der Rohe, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown DC is an architectural landmark, but the 1973 building doesn't meet the library's needs. Can it be brought back to life?

Photo by Christine on Flickr.

From a shortlist of ten qualified applicants, DC Public Library (DCPL) has chosen three teams: Mecanoo Architects with Martinez + Johnson, Patkau Architects with Krueck+Sexton and Ayers Saint Gross, and STUDIOS Architecture with the Freelon Group. All three teams have experience with libraries, historic preservation, or the DC area.

By next month, each team will produce two schemes: one for the library alone and another that adds a few floors and other tenants. The library will pick one scheme, although interim Chief Librarian Joi Mecks cautions that the design will not be final. But asking the architects to design for both options, rather than picking one now, pushes the most contentious aspect of renovation into public debate.

Since its landmarking in 2007, plans to upgrade the library have proposed adding office space somewhere on the site. Although a public agency might occupy the space, several groups have denounced what they see as privatization of a fundamental public space. But the potential revenue has proven tempting, because unlike other big-city library systems, DCPL has no endowment.

As recently as 2006, the widespread assumption was that the building was unsalvageable. Mayor Anthony Williams proposed moving the library somewhere else. This time, however, a strong contingent has pushed to restore the current building.

A pro bono team proposed dramatic alterations in 2000, but it was never taken seriously. More recently, the Urban Land Institute called for office floors above, while an exploratory scheme by Freelon proposed an aggressive renovation. All three visions concurred that the library's current configuration is unsuited to DCPL's actual needs.

Less is more…problems

There are a few challenges in renovating MLK Library. One is that the function of a library has shifted dramatically in the past 20 years. Another is the building's flawed design. But the most pressing is the building's deterioration.

Designed to mid-century construction standards, the library is expensive to heat and light. It has required ad hoc upgrades as technology changed. Decades of deferred maintenance have exacerbated flaws in the original design, from the windows to the bathrooms.

The details and finishes are not what Mies envisioned for a grand central library, comparing poorly even to buildings designed by his office at the same time. The colonnade and expansive glass walls on the library's first floor were supposed to make the interior feel like part of the same public ground as the street. But hemmed in by parking ramps in the middle of the block, the setback has instead become a dim, unsafe space.

Inside, confusing stairways and frequently broken elevators lead to dim hallways, claustrophobic reading rooms, and a windowless central space. On top of that, only two of the collections at the MLK Library are unique to the DCPL system; most of its materials can be found in neighborhood branches.

Each of the selected firms will have to reposition the library for a digital culture. Libraries aren't going away: the card catalogs may be gone, but they remain public places for learning and collaboration. The new Digital Commons, with meeting rooms, an on-demand book printer, and an extrusion 3D printer, shows that the tools have changed but libraries remain relevant.

Teams have international and local expertise

In choosing the three design teams, DCPL looked for experience first. Rather than stage an open competition, where eye-grabbing visuals and one-liner buildings often overshadow pragmatic concerns or proven experience, the library chose from 10 teams that responded to a Request for Proposals in November, who themselves came from a group of almost 30 firms that submitted their qualifications back in September.

So what qualifies these firms to compete? How can we understand their approaches when it comes time to judge the results?

Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson

Mecanoo is a major architecture firm in the Netherlands with experience designing libraries. Their TU Delft library pioneered the idea of a library as a public resource, not just book storage. Patrons at their recently-completed Library of Birmingham move up from a public first floor through a series of dramatic atriums.

Section drawing of the Library of Birmingham, courtesy Mecanoo.

Historic preservation is a specialty of local firm Martinez + Johnson. In the DC area, they restored the Takoma Park and Georgetown libraries. The restorations brought the buildings up to code while removing unsympathetic alterations.

Patkau Architects/Krueck + Sexton/Ayers Saint Gross

Patkau Architects are a well-regarded small firm based in Vancouver. They have worked on several high-profile libraries, including the Grande Bibliothéque de Québec and a renovation of the Winnipeg Millennium Library, opened up an introverted Brutalist building with a staircase that doubles as a reading room. (Full disclosure: one of the firm's partners, John Patkau, taught me in graduate school.)

Winnipeg Millennium Library reading room, courtesy Patkau Architects.

Krueck + Sexton are a longstanding Chicago firm with significant connections to Mies. The firm renovated Mies' landmarks S.E. Crown Hall and the Lake Shore Drive apartments, restoring original details while adding updates like insulated glass. They have two projects in the area, a new building in NoMa and a renovation in Foggy Bottom.

860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, renovated by Krueck + Sexton.

Ayers Saint Gross are locally-based and specialize in master plans such as the one for St. Elizabeths. They've worked on a number of libraries, mostly for Baltimore.

Studios Architecture/The Freelon Group

Studios Architecture is an international firm that's best known in DC for the pavilions at Canal Park, done with landscape architects Olin, as well as a mountain-shaped residential building in White Flint. The firm has also done some historical preservation work, notably the restoration of an early wrought-iron building in Paris.

Canal Park pavilions (with Olin), courtesy Studios Architecture.

In addition to the 2012 study, Freelon Group has already completed a minor renovation of MLK Library and designed new libraries in Anacostia and Tenleytown.

Citizen engagement necessary

DCPL's leadership deserves praise for finding a future in a library that was all but abandoned. Miesian architecture has produced incredible spaces, and a renovation could bring the brilliance to light by restoring, adapting, and contrasting the new with the old. Mies sought to produce buildings that were adaptable and extendable, and these renovations will be a test of that ambition.

It's unclear whether MLK Library can work with another occupant, particularly a commercial one. But when the architects reveal their designs on February 15th, the building's ability to evolve won't be an abstract question. We will see six possibilities representing different ideas of what a 21st-century library should be.

Even before the designs are finished, the public can have an impact. The library has set up a brief survey and crowdsourcing page to gauge interest in particular uses. You can also volunteer for a focus group by contacting Martha Saccocio at

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.  


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If the building was designed and built to such a low standard, why designate it a cherished historical landmark?

by Jacob on Jan 2, 2014 2:47 pm • linkreport

I agree...everyone admits that this is poorly built and dang near useless structure, and yet here we are, going to spend 3 times per sq/ft to "renovate" it, than it would cost to tear it down and build something truely spectacular, and get it back on the tax rolls to boot.

And give me a break with its BS "historical significance". van der Rohe is probably one of the most overated architects of the 20th century, and if he had seen the urine soaked maintenance nightmare it had become, he would likely be the first to advocate tearing it down.

But in a town where 1960's "bus garage looking warehouses" Columbia Heights Giant) nearly get landmarked, I don't know why I am surprised this structure will forever be a pox on the city and its checkbook.

by Anons on Jan 2, 2014 3:43 pm • linkreport

I meant "Cleveland Park Giant"

by Anons on Jan 2, 2014 3:48 pm • linkreport

This is historic preservation as a fetish. This building has never been a notable building in DC's architectural fabric despite its lofty pedigree. Now, as observed above, it's better known for the unuseable spaces and foul smell.

by Crickey7 on Jan 2, 2014 4:38 pm • linkreport

The architect's last name is Mies van der Rohe, not "van der Rohe."

I'm of two minds on this building. Like all buildings of its type it can only look really good if it's maintained to a very pristine standard, which may not be possible given the way it's used (and abused). So it has never looked great to me, but I can imagine a sympathetic restoration/renovation/expansion that would make a much stronger statement than what's there now or what passes for architecture in most of downtown DC for that matter. And its pedigree could attract a very high caliber of commercial tenant to help offset the cost. I'd rather keep it than lose it if it's feasible.

by jimble on Jan 2, 2014 7:26 pm • linkreport

Studies about the cost of renovation have suggested that when land acquisition and architectural quality are factored in, a new building would be just as expensive. Especially now that the CityCenter site they were considering is now off the table.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 2, 2014 7:50 pm • linkreport

I dred the inevitable nuisance lawsuits from Monsieur Nader on this issue.

Is there any process to have a building's historical designation rescinded? How did the First Church of Christ, Scientist on 16th Street manage it? I'm all for historical preservation, but not when it creates a situation where a structure is dilapidated/unusable or detracts from community life.

by Adam on Jan 2, 2014 9:32 pm • linkreport

For better or worse Mies has a huge place in architectural history so that's why they ought to save this building. Mies's International Style didn't produce many masterpieces, but it's influence can not be denied. Regardless of Mies's place in history though, re-installing the library there would be a wasted opportunity. This building never worked well, and as Neil points out, its details where crap, even if Mies used to say that 'god is in the details'.

Are they going to "restore" the clunky details of the original or give them an up-dated high-tech look? Will they replicate the original plan or redesign it to function better? Shouldn't we just sweep historical architecture away as Meis would have said? Condisering Mies championed the concept of "universal space" (open floor plan), they should re-use the building for another purpose and build a new up-to-date library on another site creating a real DC landmark. Trying to re-establish this building to its original dumpy finishes and force it to function as a 21st century library seems to be throwing good money after bad.

by Thayer-D on Jan 2, 2014 11:17 pm • linkreport

once again an article on DC libraries that doesn't mention the real problem -- the homeless.

by charlie on Jan 3, 2014 6:52 am • linkreport

The repetitive has always been hyperbolic regarding the "problems" with this building. It's 40 years old and the systems Are out of date and the windows need replacement. Nothing usual there esp in a building that has been neglected for most of its life. OTOH, the building has a simple open plan which is easily amenable to modification and probably more flexible over time than anything that would replace it. No one has questioned the structural integrity of the building and, in deed, the structural integrity is the reason that adding floors has been considered. It's not iconic mies but it it is a better piece of mid century modern than the overdone Edward Durell Stone and the mostly weak and recycled Pei buildings, not to mention the generic junk that predominates otherwise.the MLK building does lack a site that highlights the architecture unlike higher profile Mies buildings like Inland Steel in Chicago or crown IIT. I spent a year at IIT and walking past crown hall everyday helped me understand how Mies work differed from the cheaper knockoffs that dotted the campus.

by Rich on Jan 3, 2014 8:47 am • linkreport

The MLK building is spectacular from the outside. The interior problems are overstated, but clearly there's much that can be done to improve floor utilization. The exception is the technology space recently created on the first floor in the former business/technology reading room.

The new 3D printer and incubator spaces in this room are forward-looking statements about the emerging role of libraries. There are ample work stations, and silence has been discarded for a more progressive view about the benefits of interaction in a multi-media environment. The room hums with energy.

I hope in any redesign that the library makes better use of the natural light. The book stacks act as barriers to the light and the vistas. It really makes no sense. The seating should be closer to the windows.

You can debate the historical significance of that building all you want, but the building -- and its location -- represent affirmation of the importance of the library as an institution in our civic life. That this building rest between two major Metro transfer stations and in the heart of downtown, is as important to this city as the 42nd Street library is to NYC. It stands outside of class and wealth and offers equal opportunity to anyone with library card. Its central location tells us that the library is central to our civilization and future.

by kob on Jan 3, 2014 11:00 am • linkreport

Agree, the building should be saved, and not futzed with by developers. In a city with remarkably little good/serious (non monumental, non residential)downtown architecture, this is a landmark building that just needs some serious sprucing up and a total interior re-do. Not adding some dumb extra floors or knocking down.

PS, anyone remember when G street next to the library was a "pedestrian mall"? Ah, 70s planning.

by MLK commenter on Jan 3, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

If they treated the MLK Library like Dulles was treated in the 90s and built additional floors imitating Mies' exterior design up to the height limit, the MLK would look more like a classic Mies building and the rentable space would pay for itself.

by Steve on Jan 3, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

@Rich - "...higher profile Mies buildings like Inland Steel in Chicago..."

I don't think this is his.

by Walter on Jan 3, 2014 12:42 pm • linkreport

Inland Steel is by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, but it's true that MLK doesn't look that good from the corner where most people see it. It's a pretty big oversight.

The low building at Westmout Square has the same simple corner detail as MLK, but the outer ring of columns are recessed, so that works with the flat corner to make it look more like a floating bar.

At our library, the columns are flush with the facades. Without the layering you see on his skyscraper corners, I think it makes it look particularly boxy.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 3, 2014 1:23 pm • linkreport

I'm with MLK on adding floors. This building wasn't conceived as a 12 story building, it was conceived as it is. To blithely add floors would be an acknowledgement that the original design is worthless as a composition, that it wouldn't suffer with another 8 identical floors on top (which I agree with). But regardless of one's taste, this building is historic in it's current form. What other landmark building could one say the same about with a straight face? No amount of detailing will relieve this building of its boxy character, but that doesn't mean it can't be substantially improved with a sensitive touch. I hope whomever get's the job will bring the best out of Mies's vision, even if it was never part of this building.

by Thayer-D on Jan 3, 2014 9:59 pm • linkreport

Actually, Thayer, I'm pretty sure Mies designed the building for additional floors to be added and was constructed with that in mind, which is why adding floors is so feasible as structurally it's designed for it.

by Chris on Jan 5, 2014 10:32 am • linkreport

If that's so, I stand corrected. I'd love to see the original design although it wouldn't be that hard to imagine. Does anyone know how many floors where intended and can the newly expanded program fit in to it's original height? Maybe that's why it never functioned well as a library, at least from the accounts I've read.

by Thayer-D on Jan 5, 2014 3:58 pm • linkreport

I don't know what they wanted to do - Mies died halfway through the design process. But here is one drawing that has a floor set back from the facade.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 6, 2014 7:56 am • linkreport

"silence has been discarded for a more progressive view"

I don't go to the library for progressivism, I go there to read and research. It's a shame you have to go to the upper floors to do that, since the "progressive" patrons like to yap on their cell phones (or loudly to one another).

by Eager Island Poet on Jan 6, 2014 12:08 pm • linkreport

As I understand it, MLK was designed as a six-story building. It could potentially go even higher, since floor loads have decreased. An alternative could place stacks collections in the basements, thus opening up the upper level window spaces for meeting rooms, reading rooms, and other inhabited spaces.

The interior suffers from the fact that Mies principally designed in two building types -- one-story pavilions and skyscrapers -- but not many low-rises. Thus, MLK suffers from an identity crisis; the high-rises typically have completely open ground planes (the recent work on the ground level at MLK has substantially opened up the space) and focus attention on banks of elevators, which are strangely hidden in MLK's corners.

It may not be Mies' best work, but it's quite a striking building and one of the purest examples of Modernism downtown. It's certainly worth saving, and I'm glad to hear that each of the teams has experience with both libraries and sympathetic preservation.

by Payton Chung on Jan 6, 2014 3:31 pm • linkreport

Fine, save it. But don't insult everyone's intelligence by calling it attractive or some kind of DC landmark. No one who is not an architect or have architectual history interests ever knew anything about this building as anything other than a smelly and useless structure. The Little Tavern in Georgetown is about 50 times better known and more beloved.

by Crickey7 on Jan 6, 2014 4:36 pm • linkreport

It's an ugly and somewhat obselete building and anything they can do to improve it should be consider, insult to the legacy of a "famous architect" notwithstanding.

by BTA on Jan 6, 2014 4:49 pm • linkreport

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