A major goal for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library renovation is to open up the building and make it more inviting for the public, said the project’s lead architect, Francine Houben, of the Dutch architectural firm Mecanoo.
“People must realize that libraries are not just about books,” said Houben from her office in the Netherlands during a July 10 webcast about the renovation. “They are about people: People meeting each other, exchanging knowledge, furthering their education. Libraries are about lifelong learning.”
Houben was joined during the live online chat by Tom Johnson, of Mecanoo’s Washington-based partner, Martinez + Johnson Architecture, which has extensive experience with historic renovation projects. Philip Kennicott,The Washington Post’s art and architecture critic, moderated the discussion.
“What is essential in a public building is to make it welcoming,” Houben said. “To seduce people to come in, and then to create a journey with different kinds of space and different atmospheres.”
Johnson was heading to architecture school when the building was under construction, and remembers how disorienting the entry was – spacious but lacking “legibility,” he said.
Houben said she envisions “a much more transparent bottom floor with a nice public space around it that people can enjoy. From the outside, you will experience the welcoming and pleasant interior. Right now, however, when you enter the building, it feels like an old-fashioned corporate building, not a library.”
Improved Light, Sound and Air
How will the team make such a transformation? Start with the basics: Better light, sound and air.
“The old library was designed just for books,” Houben said. “[Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe (1886-1969), the building’s architect] put the books along the windows, which is kind of strange. We’ll change that. People need daylight; books do not.”
Johnson and Houben both talked about improving the building’s mechanical systems, including ventilation, heating and cooling, to make it a “pleasant and healthy building.” Not depressing or too institutional, Houben added.
A Flexible Interior Space
She also proposes “a flexible interior that can change depending on the library’s activities that day in the Great Hall and upper levels – like a theater with moving objects you can play with for different functions such as performances, concerts, storytelling or intimate programming for children. A changeable interior that isn’t static would fit with the philosophy of Mies.”
The Great Hall might be extended up through the building’s core, she said, beckoning visitors to higher levels. She also hopes to include a rooftop public garden and café.
Honoring History, Building for the Future
Both Johnson and Houben emphasized their commitment to honoring Mies’s original intent and concepts. The Library features the architect’s unique style, and is his only library and his only building in D.C. Fortunately, the original architect allowed leeway for new ideas and changes to suit the times.
“This building is a blank slate,” Johnson said. “Normally you talk about bringing a building down to its bones, but the bones are right here. There are tremendous possibilities. That’s what this project is all about.”
Speaking of history, Houben said the new design will feature prominently the library’s archival treasures, Washingtoniana – records of D.C.’s history – and Black Studies – which traces African American history. She also said that while she knew the library’s namesake was important, she has been moved by the community’s passion for honoring his memory.
Refining the Design through City and Federal Review Processes
Johnson said he is optimistic the renovation plans will be not just approved but improved following city and federal review processes by agencies such as the DC Historic Preservation Office, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts. The building must meet the federal government’s high standards for downtown Washington buildings, he said.
“Community involvement is a big tradition in my own country,” Houben said. “I’m not a dogmatic architect. I like to listen to everybody. I see the task of an architect as being a visionary while at the same time listening to and serving the people who will use the library. In Holland, we are used to working with everyone together – poor, rich, all colors of faces. It has been a big honor to be working on this project.”
MLK Library Renovation Blog
Published on Friday, July 18, 2014
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library will undergo a major renovation. The design and planning process for that renovation began last fall with the process to select and architect. We now have a concept design for the renovated building from the selected team of Martinez + Johnson/Mecanoo. The various required regulatory processes will begin this fall.
Published on Thursday, July 3, 2014
We recently spoke with Meg Maguire, a member of the MLK Library Renovation Advisory Panel and a retired community conservation consultant. She shared her thoughts on the renovation and the potential opportunities and challenges the project presents.
How a Public Library Set Me Free
Published on Friday, June 27, 2014
Last month, the Library's new executive director, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post. In it, he ties the sense of wonderment he experienced growing up with the central library in Queens, New York, with the need for a renovated MLK Library. You can read the short piece here.
Watch the Entire Discussion
Published on Wednesday, June 25, 2014
On Thursday, July 10 the DC Public Library held an online panel discussion exploring the design of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library Renovation.
Washingtoniana and Black Studies Should Be a Showpiece
Published on Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Library customers have expressed ideas for expanding and displaying more of special collections focusing on Washington’s history and the African-American experience in the United States – now housed as the Washintoniana Collection and the Black Studies Center respectively. Once the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library renovation is complete, people want to see, touch and learn more about the city’s past and the experience of blacks in this country over the past two-plus centuries.
Below are some specific ideas and suggestions expressed at the Library Design Roundtable in April and in a recent focus group of special collections patrons from all over the city.
President of the Friends of the MLK Library
Published on Friday, June 20, 2014
Recently we spoke with Robin Diener, president of the Friends of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, and a member of the MLK Library Renovation Advisory Panel. She shared her thoughts about the opportunities this project presents to the city.
Board Adopts Principles to Guide MLK Library Renovation
Published on Monday, June 16, 2014
On May 28, the DC Public Library Board of Trustees updated the Library's Mixed Use Real Estate Projects Policy. The board also adopted new principles to help guide the renovation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Share your thoughts about the types of mixed use you think might be appropriate for the MLK Library site.
Teens Seek a Comfortable Setting for Fun and Learning
Published on Friday, June 6, 2014
As part of the community input for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library renovation, Library staff has hosted focus groups with teens. We’ve gotten great ideas about how to make the library more welcoming for teens and what services would best help them succeed in school.
Here is some of what we heard from 10 students of Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, located in Anacostia.
How the District Got Its Iconic Library Building
Published on Thursday, May 29, 2014
Ever wonder how the District ended up with its iconic Mies van der Rohe-designed central library? In this episode of the DC Public Library podcast, special collections librarian Jerry McCoy tells the story of how one of the most famous architects of the 20th century came to design the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Published on Tuesday, May 20, 2014
On Monday, May 19 we held a community forum to discuss the renovation plans for the MLK Library. More than 60 participants showed up to watch as the architect team of Martinez + Johnson and Mecanoo made a presentation of preliminary designs for the building. After the presentation, the audience had a chance to respond with their options, feedback, and ideas. The slideshow of the preliminary designs is available online; please take a look and share your thoughts in the comments.