Robert Benson

The Johnson Building at the Boston Public Library (BPL), designed by Philip Johnson, and the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., designed by Mies van der Rohe, were both completed in 1972, and both share a similar trait: their rigidity. Neither Johnson’s nor Mies’ best work, the two buildings nonetheless exhibit all the hallmarks of the sometime collaborators’ respective styles: in Johnson’s case, the granite wallpaper he favored that decade; in Mies’ case, the dark steel exterior cage. Both buildings feature grids repeated in plan, in elevation, in lighting, and in section, tying the structures together but also limiting movement, flexibility, and sight lines.

As much as the buildings have aged, they have also been undone by fundamental shifts in our expectations for libraries. “That was the zeitgeist: A public library was not really for the public. You were protecting the books from people,” says Francine Houben, Hon. FAIA, founding principal at the Dutch firm Mecanoo. “Today, libraries are about people who want to get knowledge, and you can do that in many ways.”

The original Johnson Building
Boston Public Library The original Johnson Building
William Rawn rendering of the renovated building
Courtesy WIlliam Rawn Associates William Rawn rendering of the renovated building

Awe is out, delight is in, along with color, visible staircases, and support for ever-changing technology. To that end, William Rawn Associates has embarked on a $78 million, 155,900-square-foot renovation of the Johnson Building. The firm completed the second floor in February; the opening-up of the first floor will be completed next summer. And in D.C., Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson Architecture have just finished schematic designs for the $198 million renovation of the MLK Library, which will increase its public space from 151,522 square feet to 237,851 square feet. The site will close by the end of 2016 for three years of construction.

David Fixler, FAIA, a principal at EYP and president of Docomomo New England, calls the Boston project the “Seattle effect for major urban public libraries.” He refers, of course, to OMA’s trailblazing Seattle Central Library, now over a decade old. And indeed, the challenges faced by contemporary libraries are neatly outlined in OMA’s proposal for that project: “Unless the Library transforms itself wholeheartedly into an information storehouse … its unquestioned loyalty to the book will undermine the Library’s plausibility at the moment of its potential apotheosis.”

It’s much easier, of course, to meet that challenge with a new building than with a landmarked modernist one. In discussions with the leadership and renovation architects of the libraries in Boston and D.C., I was struck by their apparent frustration with the neutral, square-cornered wrappers of both buildings. But the architects have found a way through the restrictions, bringing flow and circulation to the boxes and transforming this pair of white elephants.

The original Johnson Building entry
Courtesy WIlliam Rawn Associates The original Johnson Building entry
The proposed first-floor new books area
Courtesy WIlliam Rawn Associates The proposed first-floor new books area

Those familiar with Mecanoo and Rawn Associates may expect more of a shock in D.C. than in Boston. D.C. Public Library (DCPL) executive director Richard Reyes-Gavilan points to Mecanoo’s blingy Library of Birmingham in England as proof that the firm’s “got chops.” But Rawn’s office has not approached the Johnson Building with a light hand either, but rather with a rainbow fist, introducing a full spectrum of vivid colors to the original neutral palette.

The Johnson Building, a circulating library, boasts children and teen rooms, a technology center that for many patrons is their only access to the Internet, a business library, and an auditorium. Of Johnson’s initial design, William Rawn, FAIA, says, “an armory was the model—no windows—which fortunately the library trustees rejected.” In that scheme, blank walls on the first floor flanked a shadowy entrance maw (you can imagine the elegant brass portcullis), and the third story featured tiny apertures perfect for shooting arrows at your enemy. “My first design was more medieval, you see,” Johnson told one of his biographers, Hilary Lewis, “but the board hated it.”

The library as constructed was less stagy, with a cornice that carefully lined up with that of the BPL’s adjacent palazzo-like 1895 McKim Building (designed by McKim, Mead & White), and glazed openings above and below the arches. Still, it became known as “the fortress.” Johnson added floor-to-ceiling glass on the first floor—darkly tinted, of course—and blocked them off with tall, rectangular granite slabs, set a hand’s breadth apart, that enclosed tiny exterior courtyards. If you peered between the slabs you might be able to see a person, or a book, but it was difficult. “There were trees [in the courtyards], and you could see them peeking out” over the granite, says David Leonard, BPL’s interim president, “but they were more effective in that view than [as seen from] the interior.”

An existing first-floor reading area
Ryosuke Yagi An existing first-floor reading area
The renovated second floor
Robert Benson The renovated second floor

When Johnson participated in the 2000 process to landmark his building, he made sure the granite slabs, the central granite-lined atrium (known as Deferrari Hall), and the granite-lined lobby connecting the atrium to the street were part of the designation. “Those slabs were unpopular in the city for 40 years,” Rawn says, “but no one had the guts to take it on.”

The enclosed courts did have their defenders. “[It] was a somewhat magical experience inside the library, where you had a garden next to you or in the background while you read or sat in a meeting, despite being in the middle of the city,” says Docomomo New England vice president Gary Wolf, AIA.

Nonetheless, Rawn, backed by library leadership, decided to take on the slabs. The firm studied Johnson’s writings and work for clues about how to maintain his principles, if not his materials. The library and city brought preservation groups into the planning process early, arguing that removing the granite enclosures was necessary to create a welcoming, contemporary space. In 2013, the Boston Landmarks Commission unanimously approved the major changes to the façade, requesting further review only of the new window mullions and greater attention, in the landscape plans, to Johnson’s tripartite façade division.

The firm’s plan removes most of the enclosures and replaces all of the glass with low-iron panes. Landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand are designing the streetscape, which will include a “civic table,” chairs, and lighting suspended to create a lighted outdoor room. “The idea of a library today is not a bunker within the city, but services connected with peoples’ lives,” says Clifford Gayley, FAIA, a principal at Rawn. For the Johnson Building, that means “having primary services right along the street, eliminating the granite walls in the lobby, making the glass clear, and bringing furniture and trees out on the sidewalk, which makes that feel like a space, not a windswept corridor.” In the 1970s, the library faced a parking lot across Boylston Street, as well as vacant storefronts; today, Boylston is bustling, and it is the library that is deadening street life.

Courtesy William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc. The original first-floor plan and William Rawn's adapted version.

With approval from the landmarks commission, the architects also will eliminate Johnson’s lobby, combining the three sidewalk-front bays into an enormous public living room, akin in scale and materials to the one the firm added to the nearby Cambridge Public Library building in 2010. A wave-like wood ceiling will run from end-to-end down Boylston, tying the new hall together and dampening noise from the stone floors. As users enter, the right-hand side will be a new books area, with outlets, easy chairs, and low shelving. The left side will be a retail space (occupied by a café and a satellite studio for local public station WGBH).

Possibly more important, however, will be angled paths, cutting across the corners of Johnson’s nine-square grid, that will allow greater visual and physical access across the generous expanse of the library. A widened corridor on the east reaches the McKim Building, whose famous courtyard can now be glimpsed as a marker. An opening to the west leads to a double-height fiction area, which will be hung with large glowing lanterns.

On the second floor, where Rawn recently completed renovations, I worried the new ROYGBIV surfaces would be too much, an overreaction to the existing oatmeal palette. But the scale and toughness of the interior can handle the rainbow. The children’s room doubled in size and was moved upstairs, where it occupies two sections of Johnson’s grid, bordered by a curving purple wall topped with faceted glass. Teens have a separate space in back, in which the concrete slab is exposed and antique typewriters from BPL’s collections top the stacks, giving it a funky, Friends-era coffeehouse feel. The front of the second floor is devoted to nonfiction, with two banks of cherry-red stacks flanking a lounge area with low shelving, long tables, and lounge chairs set against a striated orange carpet. Johnson’s grid of fluorescent tube lighting has been set askew, tacking across a red ceiling. As visitors move from the front of the building to the back, the colors cool off—purple, lime, and a Bristol blue—turning Johnson's tic-tac-toe plan into a festive tartan.

Johnson’s architecture had weight and presence; even now, when those qualities are less culturally appealing to the library, they provide a solid box for the explosion of new roles. Will this go-round wear and date, like Johnson’s granite wallpaper? Probably so, but for now, it is indeed busy, warm, and welcoming, and it is hard to believe many would wish the barricades back.

The southeast corner of Mies' MLK Library
Matthew Carbone The southeast corner of Mies' MLK Library
A Mecanoo rendering for MLK
Courtesy of Mecanoo, Martinez+Johnson Architecture, and the DC Public Library A Mecanoo rendering for MLK

“For Washington, Mies is not important, it is really Martin Luther King,” says Mecanoo’s Houben. “The building is very much hated by everybody. I understand why, but the longer we work on the project and start dreaming about how we can change it, I am extremely positive about the building.” Why the hate? As in Boston, much of it comes down to walls. While the library has a classic Miesian black steel, floor-to-ceiling glass exterior, through which grids of fluorescent lights are visible, those windows were largely reserved for books and not people. Vertical circulation took place in four bricked-in cores, dark and also potentially dangerous, and many of the offices and meeting rooms were also windowless, tucked into another brick box at the center of the building on floors two, three, and four. All of the spaces had similar ceiling heights and materials palettes.

Mecanoo interviewed the original project architect for MLK, Jack Bowman, and visited Mies buildings in Chicago, Germany, and the Czech Republic. “We went to Berlin, where the Neue National Gallery is also renovated, and there you learn that most people bring the building back exactly to the way it was,” Houben says. “That’s impossible in Washington.”

The MLK entrance, with a portrait of the library's namesake
Matthew Carbone The MLK entrance, with a portrait of the library's namesake
A view of the new Digital Commons, featuring “red elephants” with services and seating
A view of the new Digital Commons, featuring “red elephants” with services and seating

Mecanoo decided to approach the project in the same way as the historic 1793 church in Amsterdam that they turned into the Trust Theater: as an architectural carapace, into which they could insert reversible elements. These include four new cores, two of which contain wide, glass-fronted Aalto-esque staircases; a curvaceous rooftop addition containing an auditorium not visible from the street; a herd of “red elephants,” two-story structures in the first-floor Digital Commons that have seating on top and services below. And, in another big move, the firm will add a double-height reading room to Mies’ third floor. The DCPL’s Reyes-Gavilan has specifically requested a decorative ceiling, similar to Mecanoo’s map for the firm’s recently completed Delft Station Hall, to give the reading room updated grandeur.

Because the building’s exterior and first-floor spaces were landmarked in 2007, the design had to run a gauntlet of agencies. The Historic Preservation Review Board focused on retaining the building’s exterior appearance and interior elements, like the striking clock at the center of the Great Hall, and questioned Mecanoo’s desire to take away Mies’ brick walls around the cores. Would this move, intended to make the stairs more appealing, disrupt Mies’ hierarchy of solid vs. void? Mecanoo will replace the brick with a coated glass, still to be determined, that renders it at least semi-opaque, distinguishing it from the transparent “Mies glass” of the original. Meanwhile, as an illustration of the bureaucratic tangle, the Commission of Fine Arts enthused about the introduction of greater openness. The architects are in the process of getting the schematic design approved by the various agencies, before moving on to the final design phase. 

An existing staircase enclosed by the brick core
Matthew Carbone An existing staircase enclosed by the brick core
A revamped staircase with glass replacing the core
Mecanoo/Martinez+Johnson Architecture/DC Public Library A revamped staircase with glass replacing the core

Houben says they are still working out the design details, but many of the inserts and custom, archipelago-like seating units share a common language of blond wood, radius corners, and red. (That’s “Calder red,” like the Flamingo outside Mies’ Federal Plaza in Chicago.) She imagines a different lighting scheme for each floor above the first, with cloud-like fixtures in the expanded children’s room (colorful, but less representational than the one in Boston) and a “reading ribbon” of lights under the Starbucks-style raised bench along the curtainwall on the second floor. All this diversification reflects the change in the program from the 1970s: as in Boston, there’s a café and grab-and-go books section by the door, separate children and teen spaces, the auditorium, and the rehearsal rooms. There are books and archives, up on the third and fourth floors, but they have become role players rather than the protagonists in the library’s everyday theater.

Mecanoo is also planning a series of cuts into the “endless horizontality” of the Mies space, introducing views, light, and even a sense of play. The basement level will be transformed into the de rigueur fabrication lab, along with music and dance studios. A curving opening into the floor of the Digital Commons at the western (less public) end of the library will provide visual access. The firm will open up the back of the Great Hall to create a stepped performance space, ideal for orienting the hordes of schoolchildren who visit. On the third floor, an oblong opening creates a Grand Reading Room in the east wing, overlooked from above. On the fourth floor, the underside of the auditorium intersects the Miesian grid like a sculpture. On the roof, the auditorium, surrounded by a ribbon of glass, is rendered as a series of red and orange seats. Local firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates will do the landscape. “If you look at a lot of Mies buildings, the green is important, and we have no green here,” Houben says.

Great Hall
Matthew Carbone Great Hall
The reimagined Great Hall, looking into the performance space
Courtesy of Mecanoo, Martinez+Johnson Architecture, and the DC Public Library The reimagined Great Hall, looking into the performance space

Mecanoo’s renovation of the MLK Library will likely have a subtler, though no less revolutionary effect than the Boston project, opening the building up, warming it up, creating sections and sight lines that never existed before. The firm is also envisioning café tables and a book swap under the library’s front portico, which today is primarily a gathering place for the homeless. Reyes-Gavilan hopes the new building, located near so many national landmarks—the Smithsonian Castle, the Washington Monument—“will be the treasured space for the local city.”

Even as Houben professes her love for Mies’ architecture, the project subverts the relentlessness of the original design, making it impossible for you to be confused about which city, and which floor, you might be on. The brief was clearly to roll out the welcome mat, and indeed, make Mies more like Seattle. Mecanoo has done this in a respectful but not deferential manner, all the more unusual in an environment pitched toward preservation.

Now that Foster + Partners' scheme has been discarded, Mecanoo has been hired to renovate the two midtown buildings of the New York Public Library. How the firm will make those buildings “more public” remains to be seen, but in Boston and D.C. that meant designing spaces that are more transparent, more accessible, more casual, and more colorful. Bold and flexible in their interpretations of preservation, the MLK and BPL projects should turn these libraries into beloved buildings, while maintaining space for their original loyalty, to the quiet reading of books.

See more of Mecanoo's MLK renderings here and our project gallery here

The existing roof
Matthew Carbone The existing roof
The proposed rooftop garden
Courtesy of DCPL The proposed rooftop garden