The Mies-designed MLK Library seen from G Street in 2011.

The Mies-designed MLK Library seen from G Street in 2011.

Credit: Google Street View

The Washington, D.C. block that houses the only library ever designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe looks very different today than when it opened in 1972, three years after Mies's death. Now, the urban hodgepodge where his Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library still stands will undergo another major transformation. One of three architecture teams shortlisted for the library's renovation will decide not only what it looks like but how it serves the city in the years to come.

The opening of the Gallery Place–Chinatown Metro station in 1976 augured decades of change for the downtown block where the library stands. The arrival of the Verizon Center in 1997 signaled a citywide economic revival. Several years later, in 2011, the First Congregational United Church of Christ next door demolished their 1961 church and replaced it with their third structure on that site, designed by D.C.-based Cunningham | Quill Architects (building architects) and New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (church architects). Across G Street from the library today, a Gensler-designed building is taking shape. Following a six-year closure for renovations, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery reopened in 2006 as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture just down G Street from the MLK Library. And although it's not visible from the street, the building's Kogod Courtyard got a major architectural addition in the form of an undulating glass roof designed by London-based Foster + Partners in 2007.

That is the cycle of urban architecture. These blocks evolved as styles, tastes, and functions changed, but despite all of the movement around the five-story structure, the MLK Library has remained relatively static for its more than 40 year history.

As ARCHITECT reported, one of three architecture teams will renovate the Mies building: Studios Architecture and the Freelon Group; Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects; and Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson Architecture. These teams will present several options for the site in February: a strict library renovation or a mixed-use site with additional floors.

While the designs next month are conceptual, and any proposal will undergo community feedback, the team that is chosen could have a dramatic influence on the next new face in the Chinatown neighborhood.

Take the Freelon Group and Studios team. The Durham, N.C.–based Freelon Group—one of the firms behind the under-construction 313,000 square-foot National Museum of African American History and Culture—designed two libraries for the D.C. Public Library (DCPL) system already, one in Anacostia and another in Tenleytown, as well as a "Digital Commons" within the MLK Library. (The site's future architect, however, is not required to include the Digital Commons, completed last year, in the next library iteration, according to a DCPL design competition document.) The firm also completed several libraries in Durham.

The Freelon Group's Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library.

The Freelon Group's Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library.

Credit: Mark Herboth Photography


The Digital Commons, designed by the Freelon Group, in the MLK Library.

The Digital Commons, designed by the Freelon Group, in the MLK Library.

Credit: Mark Herboth Photography


"No two designs are alike, although there are common elements, each really responds to its particular place," says Phil Freelon, FAIA, the firm's founder and president and the design director for the MLK Library project. "In the case of MLK, the context includes the building itself."

D.C.-based Studios Architecture recently completed the building conversion for Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies, and also worked on the renovation for the American Institute of Architects' Foggy Bottom headquarters.

Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies, designed by Studios Architecture.

Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies, designed by Studios Architecture.

Credit: Bruce Damonte


The second team in the competition includes Patkau Architects, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, a firm that has not worked in D.C. before and is one of two international firms participating in the competition. John Patkau, AIA, principal at Patkau Architects and design lead for the MLK Library project, says that the project explores "the balance of intervention and maintenance." His firm worked on the 2005 renovation and addition to the Winnipeg Centennial Library in Manitoba as well as the 350,000 square-foot Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec in Montreal. The function of a library itself has changed, he says, to "a place for people as opposed to a place for books."

Winnipeg Centennial Library renovated by Patkau Architects.

Winnipeg Centennial Library renovated by Patkau Architects.

Credit: Patkau Architects


Ayers Saint Gross, which has offices in Baltimore, D.C., and Tempe, Ariz., designed several buildings as well as the master plan for Foggy Bottom's George Washington University campus. The firm's DMV experience includes Mount Vernon, Va.'s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington and renovations and additions to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. The third firm on the team, Chicago's Krueck + Sexton, designed an office building in the city's gentrifying NoMa neighborhood.

Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, designed by Ayers Saint Gross.

Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, designed by Ayers Saint Gross.

Credit: Bob Cramer


The other non-American firm in the competition—Netherlands-based Mecanoo Architecten—partnered with local firm Martinez+Johnson Architecture for the competition. Mecanoo has designed several libraries across the globe, including the recently-completed Library of Birmingham in the United Kingdom as well as their 1997 library at Delft University of Technology (the alma mater of the firm's founding partner and creative director Francine Houben, Hon. FAIA). This project would be the firm's first in D.C., and the second in the U.S. In Holland, Houben says, "we call this a young monument."

The Library of Birmingham, designed by Mecanoo Architecten.

The Library of Birmingham, designed by Mecanoo Architecten.

Credit: Mecanoo


The other firm on the Mecanoo team, Martinez+Johnson Architecture, renovated DCPL's Georgetown Neighborhood Library as well as the system's Takoma Park branch.

Georgetown Neighborhood Library, renovated by Martinez+Johnson Architecture.

Georgetown Neighborhood Library, renovated by Martinez+Johnson Architecture.

Credit: Martinez+Johnson Architecture


All of the teams bring both library and local experience to the competition. The Freelon and Studios team may bring the most D.C. flavor, while the two other teams may offer an international take for the Mies-designed structure.

How these teams navigate seemingly contradictory mandates—bring a four-decade old structure into the present day while maintaining a function, a library, that has completely changed since the building's inception—will likely distinguish their concepts. If today's library trends are any indication, it's likely that the space will focus more on community building like teen-only floors than accessing dog-eared tomes organized by the Dewey Decimal system (although there's been no indication that this library will be digital-only, either). But perhaps the most interesting part of this competition to watch will be the mixed-use portion. What would a 2014 structure on top of the 1972 structure look like?

All three teams will submit concept models and renderings for both concepts by Feb. 7. The teams will present to the public on Feb. 15 at the MLK Library.