Photo by Christine on Flickr.

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?

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 martha.saccocio@dc.gov.