Highlights from Last Week's Live Chat


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.”