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One of these three visions could be the MLK library's future

Last week, the District of Columbia Public Library unveiled the six visions for the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. While the designs aren't final, each option offers a very different approach to preserving the historic library while accommodating new uses.

Team Two's "community mixer" atrium. All images from DCPL unless noted.

Three teams of architects produced two designs each, one where the library renovates the historic building by the office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and another that also adds two or three stories of apartments to the building. For all teams, the mixed-use scheme and standalone version share a common design up until the fifth floor. The residential additions do not affect the public spaces below.

The three teams approached preservation with a few common elements. All projects leave the exterior alone. All schemes preserve the horizontal character of the ground floor, except in key locations. The changes they make stand apart from the original building, and all projects treat the Mies building as an artifact of a different time.

While libraries used to be a place where users only interacted with staff, now they're about users interacting with each other. To respond to this new purpose, the teams had to consider what kinds of spaces suited the new program. Do the existing deep floors still make sense? How do you fit new spaces, such as a lecture hall into the building? Importantly, the teams had to find a way to better connect the floors of a building that, despite having lots of glass, has very little natural light.

Because each scheme proposes major changes in the activities of the building and how visitors will move around, it's worth reading the design presentations, which we have embedded.

Team One: Mecanoo + Martinez and Johnson

Dutch firm Mecanoo and local partner Martinez and Johnson propose alterations that maintain the horizontal character of the building, even going further than Mies. Starting from the modernist's fixation on open-plan spaces, they envision removing all of the opaque barriers from the three library floors. The architects grouped programs floor by floor, so youth collections are on one floor, quiet specialty collections on another, and the noisiest, least library-like uses activate the "market" ground floor.

Team One's mixed-use design seen from 9th & G.

Library offices occupy the north side of the building up to the 5th floor, a blob-shaped mechanical penthouse surrounded by gardens. In the "development" scheme, a block-long bar of apartments sits on the penthouse, clearly distinct from the original building. The bar slants in plan from from north to south, which emphasizes the horizontal character of the original building and picks up the angles of the 10th & G building to the west and the Pepco building to the east.

To connect the public floors, Team One proposes replacing the yellow brick elevator and stair area just inside the entrance with a large atrium clad in glass panels enameled with the pattern of marble that Mies frequently used. This makes the vertical circulation one of the most visible parts of the building.

Section drawing through Team One's standalone design, showing stair cores.

Team One mostly respects the ceiling and ground planes of the first floor, but they also cut a light shaft around the rear to bring natural light to the basement. They also eliminate the low brick walls around the north side of the building, hopefully enlivening the dark arcade. This scheme would also leave the original exterior walls in place, but adds insulated glass walls to prevent heat loss, saving on energy costs.

Team Two: Patkau Architects + Ayers Saint Gross

The collaboration between Patkau Architects and local architects Ayers Saint Gross produced the most conservative scheme. The design centers on a courtyard extending from the second floor to a fabric sunshade embedded with communications technology on the third. Called the cloud, the exuberant shape framed by the courtyard reflects the team's approach of making alterations within Mies's order.

Section drawing through Team Two's mixed-use design, showing central courtyard.

Team Two's key alteration is a circulation core directly opposite the main entrance. Escalators take visitors up to a fifth-floor garden and down to the basement, which contains the technological aspects of the program, an auditorium, and the teen collection. A double-height lobby visually connects the entry with the upstairs courtyard, where all of the library's different users would mix. The design of most reading rooms remains relatively unchanged.

The residential component changes the building more dramatically. The standalone building has a small pavilion and a green roof on the fifth floor. The mixed-use variant continues the courtyard up, with a public colonnade around the skylight. Mies imagined the building with a fifth floor, so Team Two extends the original facade without windows as a kind of screen, with floors 5-8 rising behind it in a gray, transparent skin.

Team Two's mixed-use design seen from 9th & G.

In addition to the cloud, Team two proposes some unconventional changes. Most radically, they replace the parking ramps with car lifts and valet-only parking. I don't know of any buildings in DC that use this approach, although it is definitely used in other cities.

Team Three: STUDIOS Architecture + Freelon Group

Team Three proposes the most radical alterations to the Mies building, invoking the zeitgeist argument Mies himself was fond of. Their concept aspires to create a new urban space at 9th & G, inside and outside of the building. The design would gut the upper three stories of the southeastern corner and replace it with a floating, golden zig-zag block containing expanded functions of the library. A continuous stair from the basement to the fifth floor cuts an atrium into the space.

Section drawing through Team Three's mixed-use design, showing stair and atrium.

The design would open the great hall to a three-story atrium. This change is probably the most controversial feature of any of the three teams' designs. Otherwise, the first floor remains largely unchanged. Team Three does propose constructing a cafe underneath the G Street colonnade, as well as one inside the main hall.

If the library chooses to develop the mixed-use scheme, the added block would snake out of the building in a U-shape around the courtyard skylight, ending in a cantilever over the 9th Street sidewalk. The stair slope would pause at the 9th & G corner before climbing atop the residential bar to become an intensive green roof with community gardens. The way Team Three's bending bar sits atop the building leaves the 9th & G corner undisturbed and framed as a public space.

Team Three's mixed-usee design from 9th & G. Courtesy DCPL.

Team Three calls for the residential volume to use a curtain-wall system that uses mathematic equations to generate the shape of each component, some of which are more transparent than others. The floors within are conventional slabs. The patterns are carried through to flooring in the entrance that echoes the main staircase as well as the existing lights in the ceiling.

They're not done yet!

DCPL insists that nothing is final about these designs. That is certain. The library needs to decide whether to develop the mixed-use option, and what kind of legal structure it would have. Then, library officials will work with citizens and the architects to further evolve the design. Then, the evolved scheme will undergo at least two design review processes. By the time this process is complete and DCPL solicits contractor bids, the design could change quite dramatically.

The architect teams will present their projects this Saturday, February 15th at 10 am in the MLK library. If you can't attend, the library is livestreaming the event. The designs are also available at each branch library, and DCPL has a website where you can submit your thoughts.

The needs of the library are complex. A single image can't capture the particular experiences of different users, and each of the options involves trade-offs.

Personally, I prefer Team One's overall plan, especially if the library goes ahead with a mixed-use program. Although I appreciate Team Two's sensitive alterations, Team One's solutions for the program, environment, and circulation embrace the strengths of Miesian architecture, but reimagine them in a way that suits the new expectations of urban libraries. It reminds me of two groundbreaking examples of libraries for a digital society, the Sendai Mediatheque and the Idea Store, Whitechapel.

If Team One's design is the beginning of a public building of that caliber, DC will be in good shape.

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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They should just duplicate the current design up to the height limit. I was shocked when they did a similar thing at Dulles. Architects always want to put their own personal stamp on an expansion. Like Gehry and his Corcoran embarrassment.

by Steve on Feb 10, 2014 10:30 am • linkreport

None of these options deal with the overhang on the ground floor, which is a magnet for homeless people. DCPL, the city, and the architects need to address this in some way. Just focusing on the interior architecture of the building isn't enough to make it a genuine community space - the social barriers also have to be addressed through how the exterior architecture creates a public space. It's a touchy issue, but the success of the project depends on it, in my view.

by Ben on Feb 10, 2014 11:15 am • linkreport

I like the idea of keeping the curreent building and expanding it if neccessary. But has any serious thought been given to going back to the original "Carnegie" library building in Mount Vernon Square? Just flip the properties.

by Districter on Feb 10, 2014 11:33 am • linkreport

--We had to destroy the historic building in order to save it.

Ought to tell you a bit about whether it was really worth saving in the first place.

by Crickey7 on Feb 10, 2014 11:39 am • linkreport

While libraries used to be a place where users only interacted with staff, now they're about users interacting with each other.

This is one of my greatest concerns about any library redesign, where the architects seem to forget that a lot of people use the library as a place for quiet reading and working. The London School of Economics library has an impressive open design, but it is terrible to work in because every cough, sneeze, cell phone call, normal conversation, dropped book, crying child, printer sound, clanging elevator door, or other noise echoes like crazy in the open space and makes it next to impossible to concentrate. And students know that there are only few tables and chairs available in the designated quiet study rooms (the ones with doors that shut to keep out the noise), so they camp out there for hours on end.

Ideally, a library should be a mixed-use place, but the community center component shouldn't dominate to the point where those who actually want to use the library for its main purpose can't find a quiet spot to sit and read.

by SG on Feb 10, 2014 11:44 am • linkreport

Districter: Yes, but it's about 1/8th the size of the library this brief asked for. EDAW conducted a study in 2006, which would have added large wings around the library and buried even more under the plaza.

An architecture studio at Notre Dame took on the problem as well.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 10, 2014 11:57 am • linkreport

I agree with districter, why don't they should just flip properties with the original library. The MLK will never match the presence of the older one. Also, if you needed to expand the Carnegie, you have plenty of room on its site, assuming one can do it without that whole "building for our time" crap destroying the original aesthetic.

Alas, DC will throw good money after bad and try to make a building type that was always intended to be a "universal space" work as a library. It's cold and empty spaces will never inspire or elevate a student like the beauty of the Carnegie, but dammit, we got a Mies!

by Thayer-D on Feb 10, 2014 12:02 pm • linkreport

This seems like a done deal, except for the details. I'm sure the plan that will be selected will be the one that does the best job of getting rid of the homeless. They won't be able to put in high-cost housing without it.

Will DC be selling the MLK building to the developer?

What will the terms of the almost certain lease-back be?

How will the building be governed? What will DC be giving up?

I'll also bet that 90% of the people supporting the sale of MLK don't use it all.

by kob on Feb 10, 2014 12:15 pm • linkreport

I once went to MLK library to do some research. At that time I believe it was the only DC library that was open on a Sunday. Almost every table was occupied by a bunch of homeless folks, who- in all honesty- smelt terrible. When I finally found a spare seat to sit at, one of the homeless guys started yelling at me that it was his buddy's seat and I couldn't sit there.

I never went back.

by renegade09 on Feb 10, 2014 1:26 pm • linkreport

IIUC, the Carnegie library was built using the closed-stack system, which is one of the reasons why it was replaced in the first place. I don't know if renovating it to open up the stacks to the patrons is even feasible, and if it is it would probably be extremely expensive. In any event, it wouldn't be a simple matter of just carting the books back to Mt. Vernon Square.

by jimble on Feb 10, 2014 2:02 pm • linkreport

Carnegie Library is much too small to accommodate the MLK collection, events, etc. Carnegie has less than 100K ft space compared to 400K for MLK at present, which has already been outgrown.

by Burd on Feb 10, 2014 2:11 pm • linkreport

Carnegie Library is likely the home of the new Spy Museum and isn't really on the table as an option.

by babblefish on Feb 10, 2014 2:13 pm • linkreport

To be fair, homless and mentally ill people can be found in all librarys. It's where I'd go if I was in that predicament, assuming I had the where withall to stay somewhere warm and safe. The issue with this library is it never functioned well, it wasn't maintainted, and it's not the most inviting building.

While many of those aspects can be fixed or mitigated, I'm not sure that's going to happen with anyone of these proposals. This kind of barren minimalism looks elegant when in small scale projects with finely crafted materials and workmanship, but at this scale, its sterile quality is off putting. For all the "flow" diagrams, cool stick figures, and computer rendered perspectives, it's just not that appealing.

Of all three proposals, I'd go for team three's. Maybe the big atrium will make it more welcoming. Afterall, the more non-homeless people use the library, the better the homless can be absorbed within it's population, and since they are redoing the whole interior, adding some wood details might help also.

The main renderings are telling though. The first goes with the neo-60's cool approach while the other too submerse it in a pink and blue sky befitting a rococco church ceiling. This is a building that's hard to love.

by Thayer-D on Feb 10, 2014 2:25 pm • linkreport

I quite like the first design, it seems to organize the space in a very logical way, from the more active to the quieter as you go up, which does a nice job of meeting both the research and interactive needs at the same time. I also like that it seems to give some consideration to the staff who have to work in the building all the time and they get some nice space for their own use.

by Jen on Feb 10, 2014 3:20 pm • linkreport

Thayer, I do agree that Mecanoo's scheme could have too much unstructured glass. The Sendai Mediatheque certainly is a little cold. But they proposed a lot of wood details on the dividers. I hope any approach adds warmth and acoustical dampening where it's appropriate.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 10, 2014 5:13 pm • linkreport

These rather ostentatious, grandiose renderings confirm what I've always expected. The need "to do something" about MLK is only tangentially related to DC's need for a decent central library. The only real problem with the current structure is what one would expect from 40 years of complete neglect. The renderings have little to do with how an actual library functions. Mies' open floor plan should be very adaptable for whatever a future library needs. Replacing the windows and the HVAC and upgrading the plumbing and electrical and and reasonable plan for reconfiguring the floor space for current needs will be a lot cheaper than any of these fantasies and probably more likely to withstand the neglect that DCPL seems to heap on even its newest structures. The library needs a decent operating budget and programming to draw in the public.

The homeless issues can be solved partly by making the building more useful and by simple things like having social service agencies find some place else to drop off their clients and negotiating with the church next door to find better ways to do outreach (in fairness, they seem to contribute less than they did in their old building).

DC libraries have a long ghistory of being among the first agencies to take a hit in budget cuts. An adequate, unsexy building and the funds to maintain it make more sense than some ugly post-modern relic.

by Rich on Feb 10, 2014 9:56 pm • linkreport

Mecanoo's rendering approach distinguishes the office from the other two proposals, that's a fact! And judging by mecanoo's experience in libraries, TU Delft Library and Birmingham Library, im sure they are up to the challenge!

by Antony on Feb 11, 2014 6:35 am • linkreport

Maybe they should cover the facade with a decorative scrim like the Birmingham library. That's one of the ugliest buildings I've ever seen, at least from the outside.

by Thayer-D on Feb 11, 2014 10:01 am • linkreport

@Thayer-D: I know the facade of Birmingham Library is an 'acquired taste', but have u been inside? You can only truly understand it once you see it from the inside. Perhaps Studios/Freelon were inspired when they designed their proposal for MLK ;-)

by Antony on Feb 12, 2014 5:45 am • linkreport

I love green roofs!! I'd also love some living walls-- there's a building by the Baltimore Harbor that has a gorgeous one...

by Claudia on Feb 13, 2014 11:43 am • linkreport

I'll leave the "design" issues to others. But I would like to suggest that the existing 4-story library wastes a lot of prime real estate. The air rights above the library should be developed for housing, offices or hotel space. The air rights should be leased to a private developer in exchange for the renovation of the library (plus cash if the market value of the air rights exceeds the renovation costs) or appropriately discounted if the renovation costs exceed the market value of the air rights). The Sumner School (17th & M Streets, NW) and the Oyster School (2801 Calvert Street, NW) were both renovated / reconstructed using a similar economic model.

Taxpayers have spent a lot of money on Metro, the library and other public goods and services that make our downtown valuable. It makes no sense to waste that very valuable space. And utilizing that space can bring needed revenues to the District, thereby helping to reduce the tax burden on existing residents and businesses.

by Rick Rybeck on Feb 13, 2014 1:05 pm • linkreport

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