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.