The MLK Library in 2006.
D Monack/Wikimedia Commons The MLK Library in 2006.

After years of neglect and deferred maintenance, the central library in the nation's capital is due for some attention. But what should happen next is the subject of great debate in Washington, D.C. Here's everything you need to know to understand why this library matters and what architects are proposing to do to restore it..

What's the deal with this library?

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is the hub of the D.C. Public Library (DCPL) system in Washington, D.C. It's the only library designed by modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and opened three years after his death in 1972. For that matter, it's the only building by one of the Big Three—Mies, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier—in Washington, D.C. It's awesome, but it needs a renovation.

What's the problem? 

That depends on who you ask. When Mayor Anthony Williams was in charge, he alleged that the library couldn't be used as a 21st-century library space. In 2006, Mayor Williams proposed moving the central library to a $180 million facility in a mixed-use building on the site of the former convention center (now home to CityCenterDC). He once even suggested painting it white. Williams's successor, Mayor Adrian Fenty, gave lip service to the notion of a Bloomingdale's moving into the library building.

None of these suggestions came to pass. And none tackled the problems with the building itself: neglected maintenance, abandoned design features, and declining services among them. That work eventually fell to Ginnie Cooper.

Who's that?

Ginnie Cooper, DCPL's chief librarian and executive director between 2006 and 2013. In seven years, Cooper opened or renovated 14 branch libraries. The Washington Post reports: "During Cooper's tenure, the number of books checked out from the library system increased from 1.2 million to 3.7 million annually; library program attendance increased from 192,000 to 259,000." Cooper received the 2013 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture in recognition of her work to restore libraries by emphasizing the buildings.

So what did Ginnie Cooper do about the MLK Library?

Nothing, yet. Turning around a system marked by decades of neglect was certainly a start. In fact, it's a testament to the Mies building that it isn't in worse shape given the decades of deferred maintenance. Cooper brought back the original Mies furniture, dedicated a digital-resource center, and cleaned out some distracting kiosks from the lobby, all steps that have helped to restore the building to its former glory. But Cooper focused on the satellite branches. Although she kicked the process in motion, it will fall to her successor, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, to oversee the renovation of the Mies building.

Awful sidebar question: Why are there so many homeless people at MLK Library?

The District is facing a severe and growing homelessness crisis. The MLK Library has a vast overhang, and some use it as a shelter. In 2001, a D.C. court found a DCPL policy unconstitutional that barred patrons whose appearance was considered objectionable. Users have said for years that the presence of so many indigent persons have contributed to a forbidding air at the library. That may be unfair, and the needs of homeless families requires our immediate attention, but it is probably beyond the purview of the library or its architects to solve.

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

Okay. So who's going to restore the library?

Potentially, one of three design teams. The list was narrowed down from 26 teams to 10 in October, then down again in December to the final three. These teams submitted initial design ideas last week.

What's the assignment?

The teams were asked to submit two ideas: what they would do if it was a straight library renovation, as well as possibilities for a mixed-use building with additional floors above the existing Mies building.

What are the designs like?

Keep in mind that these designs are merely preliminary ideas. The contest is meant to find the most fitting firm for the job and the board will work with that firm to develop a final redesign.

Team: Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson Architecture

Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan

This design, titled “the Ten MMMM Principles” (Mies, MLK, Mecanoo, Martinez & Johnson), provides plans that could be developed either with or without private development on top of the building. According to the team, it “improves Mies in a contemporary Miesian way.” The proposal retains the symmetry of the library and returns the façade to its original condition with one uniform plane. But there are also plans to dramatically change the building: stripping all solid walls on the interior, for example, and swapping existing exterior brick walls with glass. The expanded vision would replace two cores at the main entrance with "glass with a marble (Miesian) pattern"—including glass elevators or possibly escalators—and add a 300-seat auditorium that opens up to the rooftop garden. (Note that the skewed volume on top of the original building features window treatments that echo the Foster + Partners design for the nearby CityCenterDC development.)

Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan
A visitor looks on at the Mecanoo/Martinez+Johnson Architecture proposal.
Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan A visitor looks on at the Mecanoo/Martinez+Johnson Architecture proposal.
Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan

MLK Renovation Design Ideas, Team 1: Mecanoo + Martinez and Johnson by dclibrary_social

Team: Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects

Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan

This proposal hews most closely to the geometry of the original building, from the perspective of the street. The plan substantially transforms the interior, adding a three-story "Community Mixer" atrium space inside upper floors of the library's core. Daylit reading terraces would connect each floor to this social column. Above the Community Mixer, the proposed "Cloud" space would dramatically break with Miesian geometry, distributing daylight throughout the atrium and generating sustainable energy. A public terrace could enhance a plan for private residences that aligns with the MLK Library shape. This residential plan is less visible from the street. Finally, the Team 2 proposal suggests enhancing the façade with a digital display that could be used to broadcast social or corporate advertisements or other notices.

Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan
Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan
Eli Meir Kaplan

MLK Renovation Design Ideas, Team 2: Patkau + Ayers Saint Gross

Team: Studios Architecture and the Freelon Group

Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan

This proposal focuses on a "Continuous Landscape" concept. It creates an atrium for a terraced staircase in the middle of the Mies building that extends four stories, ending at a roof park with a cafe and places for events. This atrium is designed to be an "internal street" in the library. The plan calls for seating in the atrium's terraces and meeting rooms that face out and up to the rooftop terraces. In the residential addition plan, the roof park includes community gardens and a "Learning Orchard" quiet space at the top of the structure.

Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan
Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan
Courtesy Eli Meir Kaplan

MLK Renovation Design Ideas, Team 3: STUDIOS + Freelon

Didn't one of those firms already develop a redesign?

Yes: In 2012, the library board asked the Freelon Group, the library's "general design consultant," to conduct a study of feasible options for the building. The firm created a conceptual redesign that would cost an estimated $175–250 million. Although the Freelon Group created a redesign, the board had planned from the beginning to host this competition to find the best firm for the job.

A conceptual design of the renovations included in the 2012 report by Freelon Group
Freelon Group A conceptual design of the renovations included in the 2012 report by Freelon Group

Who decides who wins?

The technical evaluation committee is tasked with reviewing several aspects of each proposal: the senior personnel assigned to the project and the team's experience designing libraries; the approach to managing the project and budget; and the ability to meet or exceed the District’s Certified Business Enterprise participation rate of 35 percent. In mid-February, DCPL announced the members of the technical evaluation committee:

  • Ginnie Cooper (Chair), former chief librarian, DC Public Library
  • Barbara Norland, senior librarian, capital projects, DC Public Library
  • Chris Wright project manager, capital projects, DC Public Library
  • Bill Alsup, senior vice president, Hines Development
  • Jair Lynch, president/CEO, Lynch Development Partners
  • Carol Mitten, executive director, headquarters consolidation, Department of Homeland Security
  • Susan Piedmont-Pallidino, professor of architecture, Virginia Tech University curator, National Building Museum

In addition, the technical evaluation committee will work with an advisory panel, whose members represent key constituencies and communities:

  • Harriet Tregoning, director, DC Office of Planning
  • Patricia Zingsheim, associate director of revitalization & design, DC Office of Planning
  • Kingdon Gould, Gould Property Company
  • Mark Leithauser, senior curator and chief of design, National Gallery of Art
  • Alex Padro, member, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library Design Guidelines Committee
  • Robin Diener, president, Friends of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library
  • Susan Haight, president, Federation of Friends
  • Neil Albert, chair, facilities committee, DC Public Library Board of Trustees
  • Abigail Smith, deputy mayor for education, Office of the Mayor
  • Meg Maguire, past chair, site development task force, First Congregational Church, past chair, transportation subcommittee, Committee of 100 on the Federal City
  • David Bell, preservation architect
  • John Tinpe, commissioner, ANC 2C01
  • Rick Reinhard, deputy executive director, Downtown BID
  • Jo-Ann Neuhaus executive director, Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association
What happens now?

Library officials have just introduced the design concepts. Now they want community feedback. Follow @architectmag or read here for updates from these forums. The first is scheduled for Feb. 15, 2014.