It's been nearly a year since the Washington, D.C., public library system selected Netherlands-based firm Mecanoo Architecten and local firm Martinez+Johnson Architecture to renovate the system's aging central library, a 1972 building by the late modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is the district's only building by Mies, and the only library Mies designed.
The DC Public Library (DCPL) and the design team have spent the last year soliciting feedback from the community, both online and in several meetings. In October, the DCPL announced that the whole building and a fifth-floor addition will be needed for all the library's new programming. Next week, the renovation proposal is scheduled to go before the city's Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) for the first time.
It's fortuitous timing, as the meeting is scheduled just a few days after the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., who has remained an integral consideration in the renovation design process despite the fact that the building was dedicated in 1971, several years after Mies presented his design in 1966 and the library broke ground in 1968. There's also a larger question about whether it's even possible for an architectural design to honor King.
Nothing will be decided next week, according to the DCPL website: "While the plans have not been finalized, the architect team will give an informational presentation at a public hearing on January 22 to give the HPRB an opportunity to react to the current proposals. No formal approval or denial will be issued by the HPRB at this stage in the process. The public is invited to testify at this hearing."
The city's Office of Planning and the DCPL provided ARCHITECT with copies of the presentation submitted to the HPRB. (See the embedded document at the bottom of this page.) These are not the final designs, just the latest ones to be presented to the board next week.
The presentation includes two proposals for a one-story roof addition, one curved and one rectangular. The possibility of a more extensive rooftop addition, potentially residential, has been discussed and was one of the initial design concepts required of the finalist teams. Next week's presentation focuses on the renovation of the main building plus a one-story addition, but does include one exterior rendering of a three-story addition. The presentation does not include any renderings of the three-story diagonal block addition that was part of the team's concept proposal.
"The focus of the HPRB review is the building historic elements," says DCPL spokesperson George Williams in an email. "Because they are present in both designs, the submission to HPRB was intended to bring the attention on the historic elements. The three-story addition is still a possibility."
For the first level, the design team has moved the library's Digital Commons room to the other side of the building next to a café. The current Digital Commons room was completed in 2013 and designed by the Freelon Group (now part of Perkins+Will), which was one of the MLK library finalist teams with Studios Architecture. The Popular Library is proposed for where the Digital Commons currently stands. Symbolically, this is huge, as it's moving the digital space to the library's only open street-facing corner and sequestering books to a slightly less prominent part of the facade.
The presentation also includes two options for the what the proposal calls "public cores"—two stairwell blocks on either side of the building's main entrance vestibule. Both public core options look more transparent than what exists today.
The design also includes what appear to be moveable dividers between the Great Hall and a new enclosed event space where the building's loading dock currently stands.
The proposed café, located near the main G Street entrance in earlier designs, has been moved to the opposite side of the building along G Place and 9th Street, and includes an outdoor patio in a space currently blocked by a masonry wall.
These designs are subject to change, and likely will. Design feedback from the HPRB next week, as well as in subsequent meetings, will likely impact how the design is shaped over the next year. According to a timeline in the presentation, the architecture team and the DCPL are shooting to submit the design for final review around the end of the year. The HPRB staff report, which details the board's opinion on the presentation, will be posted before the meeting scheduled for next Thursday, Jan. 22. The meetings are public and live-streamed.
All images courtesy of Mecanoo Architecten, Martinez+Johnson Architecture, and the DC Public Library.