Last month, the District of Columbia Public Library system selected Dutch firm Mecanoo Architecten and Washington, D.C.–based firm Martinez+Johnson Architecture to renovate the capital's central library, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library—a 1972 building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The library has suffered from decades of neglect and deferred maintenance. Now, in addition to a renovation, it may also get a new mixed-use addition, rooftop gardens, and other features. Mecanoo's founding partner and creative director, Francine Houben, Hon. FAIA, spoke to ARCHITECT about the team's plans for the only library that Mies ever designed.
What features in the MLK Memorial Library no longer support the needs of 21st-century library users?
Many floors have almost no daylight because they are blocked by walls. The structure is really of Mies van der Rohe, but I think that the way they made all the partition walls is quite illogical, because where they put most of the brick walls, you could make it totally transparent. So we cleaned up the building a lot. I hope Mies will be proud of me. That’s my dream.
Do you have a favorite building designed by Mies?
The museum in Berlin [Neue Nationalgalerie]. Its pavilion is perfect. So is the composition of materials and proportions. Also, there are his skyscrapers in New York and Chicago, but I think you also have to realize the things he designed were in a certain period.
What is the city market hall in your proposal?
The term market hall was something that was in our brief. The entrance, in my dreams, is that even a father with a five-year-young son or daughter could enter the building and both be inspired. When you enter the building right now, it's very Miesian, it's not so welcoming for everybody, and it's a little bit more of the atmosphere of a corporate office building.
Patricia Patkau, an architect on one of the finalist teams, said that she is not certain that this building can honor someone like Martin Luther King Jr. Can you respond to that?
Yeah, I do not agree. If we, the way we propose in our sketches, try out these different layers—one floor is about innovation, one floor is more the market hall, one floor is celebrating education, one floor that is still celebrating the traditional books, one floor that is about history and the future of African American studies in Washington. There is also the debate center, the conference center, and the general idea that the freedom of speech oversees the whole city. For me, that really symbolizes Martin Luther King Jr.
You've said that the building should be "more human" and could use a "female touch."
When we were working on the project, we put a picture of Martin Luther King and a picture of Mies van der Rohe on the ceiling. Mies van der Rohe is very masculine, and at the same time Martin Luther King is very human. So maybe I add a little bit of a female touch.
This will be only the second project in the U.S. for your firm. Is this the beginning of more projects here?
I would love that! But we will see if they want us.
You've cited David Hockney as an inspiration. Has anyone else had particular influence on your work?
I always liked the work of Charles and Ray Eames. It's innovative, it's technical, it's human, it's useful. It's also playful, and it's still modern even after 50 years.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.