Launch Slideshow

Now You See It…

The city's library system may abandon its Mies-designed headquarters. The site is ripe for redevelopment, and the building's future is unclear.

Now You See It…

The city's library system may abandon its Mies-designed headquarters. The site is ripe for redevelopment, and the building's future is unclear.

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    Stewart Ferebee

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    Stewart Ferebee

    The library's champion, architect Kent Cooper, conducted a study for the building's renovation at the behest of the AIA D.C. chapter and the library board.

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    Stewart Ferebee

    His proposal entails the reworking of the interior program and the addition of a fifth floor to the building, as Mies originally intended.

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    Stewart Ferebee

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    Stewart Ferebee

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    Stewart Ferebee

    His proposal entails the reworking of the interior program and the addition of a fifth floor to the building, as Mies originally intended.

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    Stewart Ferebee

    A new reading room carved out of the library's core is at the physical and conceptual center of Kent Cooper's proposal.

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    Stewart Ferebee

    D.C. Library Renaissance Project director Robin Diener argues that Cooper's renovation plan has been unjustly ignored.

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    Stewart Ferebee

    A sketch of Cooper's renovated lobby shows a new staircase to the mezzanine and main reading room above.

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    Stewart Ferebee

    Ginnie Cooper D.C.'s new head librarian, has begun neglected repairs to the MLK Library but would like to build a new building.

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    Stewart Ferebee

    Missing lamps represent the least of the MLK Library's problems.

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    Stewart Ferebee

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    Perimeter stacks near windows and direct sunlight may harm book collections.

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    Card catalogs remain as a vestige of the unwired library.

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    Stewart Ferebee

    Pedestrian life has thankfully begun to return to the MLK Library's neighborhood.

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    Stewart Ferebee

    Pedestrian life has thankfully begun to return to the MLK Library's neighborhood. Nonetheless, the Mies-designed building broods a little too much for some people who live and work in downtown D.C.

“I got into this because I want to have a really good library,” Cooper says, “but I was really trying to save the Mies building.”

His study showed that the library could be retrofitted to serve the city more effectively while preserving its Miesian character. The library staff have complained that the placement of stacks near perimeter windows has caused books to bake in the sun. Cooper's plan would replace the tinted glass with new lights that would block ultraviolet rays and protect the collection.

But the principal overture of Cooper's concept is to carve out a daylit atrium at the core of the building that would serve as a new main reading room and become a social heart for the building. (The space that would be lost would be replaced in a new fifth floor that Mies intended but that was never built.)

“From the second floor up, it's a free span,” making a central atrium structurally feasible, Cooper says, “which would make it kind of an interesting contemporary building of the kind Mies would be doing now if he were still alive—skylit, sustainable.”

Cooper believes that renovating rather than replacing the library would be the city's most sustainable option in any case. When his plan was done, his team presented it to library and city officials. “The library board was ecstatic,” Cooper recalls. But the city's then-planning director, Andrew Altman, was less so. “What we didn't know was that he was planning to move the library,” Cooper says. Six years went by. “Our design got very nice press in the architectural community, and I put it on a shelf, and nobody said anything to me.”

The local AIA chapter, which sponsored the renovation study, did not contact Cooper earlier this year when its directors changed position and decided to support a new library on the eve of a hearing in June before the D.C. Council's library committee. The committee was to consider legislation submitted by the mayor that would finance a new building with proceeds from a 99-year lease on the MLK building, with payment accepted in lieu of taxes from a developer, who would have to treat the older structure “in a manner that preserves the historic character of the building.”

The AIA's testimony to the council supported a new library. It stated that the chapter supports preserving the exterior of the MLK Library building and “adapting its interior” to a different public use, but that it no longer favors updating the building as a library “because of its inherent limitations” in accommodating the latest information technology. Cooper says he found the building infinitely more adaptable to rewiring than many older masonry libraries that have been upgraded.

The local AIA chapter's executive director, Mary Fitch, said that the board changed position because “there are different factors involved now,” namely a plausible site and palpable will to build a new library, which hadn't existed previously. As for Cooper's proposal, Fitch says, “Some people find the retrofit a little alarming. Some find it a possibility to be useful.”

The AIA “made an about-face,” says Robin Diener, the director of the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, a nonprofit group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader to rehabilitate the city's libraries. Diener supports Cooper's proposal because “it's a beautiful plan, simple, and bigger than anything the mayor is proposing.” The mayor has proposed a 350,000-square-foot library—50,000 square feet smaller than the MLK building. The city hired Polshek Partnership Architects to study the new site and at the council hearing presented a stacking diagram of a library at this summer's hearing.

Richard Levy, a Washington developer and library trustee who chairs its facilities committee, says the Polshek study was troubleshooting to determine “whether a 350,000-square-foot library would fit on a 50,000-square-foot site. … whether we can get the adjacencies.” Levy says it will work: “We could fit what we need and in a much more efficient way.”