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DC Library Trustees Select Architectural Team for the Long-Awaited Reconstruction of MLK Central Library at Gallery Place

Accompanying images can be viewed in the March 2014 issue PDF;

By Anthony L. Harvey

A lively crowd of DC citizen activists, District public officials, and downtown business executives — sprinkled with reporters and television cameras — gathered downtown in the first floor lobby of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library (MLK) on February 18th to hear DC Mayor Vincent Gray announce the selection of a team of two architectural firms to renovate and restore the 42-year-old historic, landmark modernist structure designed by world-renowned architect Mies van der Rohe.

Selected were Mecanoo Architecten, with a world-wide practice based in the Netherlands at Delft, and Washington, DC’s Martinez+Johnson Architecture. Both firms are well-known for acclaimed architectural achievements, including prize-winning college and public library design projects for both newly built libraries and those featuring renovated and reconstructed historic structures.

The process for selecting these two firms was an extensive one, with responses to the Library’s request for interest in the project attracting architectural design firms from all over the world; 10 of these firms were asked to submit formal statements of design approaches to a project involving the restoration and preservation of the landmarked, 1972 MLK building at 9th and G Streets, NW and its adaptation to the needs and requirements of a 21st century library structure that will reflect and support the watershed changes brought by the electronic information age and the dramatically changing patterns of urban life — this in either a stand-alone and restored structure or in an expanded building with additional floors for residential or commercial uses and rooftop amenities for both public and prospective private users.

Three of these 10 firms were then selected and charged with the production of models, design concept plans, and architectural renderings of their design proposals.

Three days prior to the Mayor’s February 18th announcement, a standing room crowd of over 300 persons gathered in the same space for an illustrated presentation of the concept design plans from each of these three teams of firms — the other two being Patkau Architects with Ayers Saint Gross and the Freelon Group with STUDIOS Architects. All three teams presented stunning conceptual designs, each proposing to open up the interior floors of the Mies building, creating dramatic new vistas and circulation avenues, and providing rooftop green features and viewing decks — ironically making the floors, and the building itself, more Miesian-like — with Patkau and Ayers including in their proposal an intriguing, cloud-like feature in the center of the top two library floors.

The Freelon Group, which had electrified the MLK library community on September 18, 2012 when it participated in a panel discussion with other nationally recognized architects and library experts addressing ideas on the future of the building, and at that time presented an unsolicited design proposal that brought the Mies building back to life in a sparkling new expression of light and openness. This time Freelon, along with STUDIOS, presented an even more elaborate design concept in the competition proposal crafted by both firms together, with a grandiose new structure of apartments on top of the original building and an opened-up basement level for the archives, research collections, and MLK mural.

Freelon/STUDIOS grand interior staircase design presented a compelling alternative to the present dark and ghostly staircases adjacent to MLK’s two elevator cores. Mecanoo/Martinez+Johnson’s proposal seemed even more Miesian than Mies; it eliminated the dull yellow brick walls from the entrance façade, the southwest corners, and throughout the upper three floors thereby presenting a crisp and clean version of the building. One image showed Mies himself standing in front of a building model without the front façade’s large brick wall panel. Noting that none of these brick walls are load bearing, and Mies’s own admonition that as time passes a society’s needs change, and the flexible, geometric design of his buildings were supremely adaptable to change.

Competition winner Mecanoo/Martinez’s design concept for its proposed rooftop addition called for a rectilinear structure angled away from MLK’s southeast corner, keeping the horizontal frame of MLK dominant and preserving public accessibility to the building’s strategic southeast corner location on the 9th and G downtown street grid. The design team’s open circulation and flexible floor plans served to maximize the opportunities for new and existing utilization of library public service, study and research, and performance and meeting room spaces.

Mecanoo, whose name is based on that of the British model construction set invented in 1898, has designed and seen built libraries in such locations as the Netherlands, Great Britain, and China. The library for the Technical University in Delft, for example, is a masterwork of glass and grass. Described by the firm as a building with a sloping grass roof that is freely accessible for lounging and walking, the library’s roof is supported by slender steel columns that define a space enclosed by canted, fully glazed walls. “Supported by splayed steel columns,” the firm reports, “a central cone pierces the green expanse and houses four levels of traditional study space.”

Mecanoo’s design of a central library in downtown Birmingham, England has created, by all accounts, a transformational and monumental, cultural and entertainment landmark in that city’s largest public square. Birmingham’s central library building houses an adult and children’s library, study center, and music library; a community health center; multimedia, archives, offices, and exhibition halls; cafés and lounge spaces; roof terraces; and a 300-seat auditorium shared with the neighboring Birmingham Repertory Theater.

Among Martinez+Johnson’s historic public library projects here in the District the prize-winning reconstruction and preservation designs for the Georgetown Library and that of Takoma, DC. The Georgetown project resulted in the solid and sensitive restoration of a historic building that had experienced a disastrous fire and in the creation of new interior spaces, first for the library’s Peabody Room in the structure’s high-ceilinged, previously unused attic and then with the ground level children’s library which was ingeniously extended into the building’s backyard terrace. Circulation within the reconstructed building was dramatically improved for both patron movement and natural lighting.

The firm’s projects involving buildings of the more recent past include its preservation design work for such mid-century modern landmarks as the David H. Koch theater at New York’s Lincoln Center where the architects found “the primary differences [with older historic structures] to be in building style, systems, and materials, not quality of architecture.”

Ginnie Cooper, the DC Public Library’s former chief librarian, who chaired the seven-member technical evaluation committee for the architecture team selection, emphasized that the District was selecting a team to design a new MLK, not designs for a new MLK. The Library’s press release announcing the selection offered the following three considerations informing the technical evaluation committee’s selection, which it asserted had been made with assistance from an advisory panel, on-line and focus group input and community input from attendees at the February 15th public briefing. The committee’s final selection was based on, the Library further asserted:

“Senior personnel assigned to the project and their experience designing and completing major libraries and obtaining appropriate approvals from DC and Federal review agencies;

“Approach to managing the project, developing the project budget, managing the costs and schedule while ensuring the final design meets budget requirements, and addressing key challenges that are inherent in the project, and

“Ability to meet or exceed the District’s Certified Business Enterprise participation rate of 35 percent.”

Next steps for the project are crucial. With the design team’s selection having been made, library officials will begin working with Martinez+Johnson to craft a contract for review and approval by the DC Council. And, according to the press release, the selection effort’s “Advisory Panel will help the library continue to collect input from the community on what they would like to see in their renovated . . . Library.

The Library’s community involvement efforts so far have been modest, and perhaps appropriately so, given the technical, managerial, and budgetary considerations inherent in the initial task of selecting an architectural team based on design excellence and the selected team’s proven track record for such a project.

The extraordinary success of the library system’s reconstruction and rehabilitation of 15 branch libraries over the past several years, with a library team inspired and led by Ginnie Cooper, sets a high bar for the MLK central library project. With the architectural design excellence of the new and restored branch library buildings providing District residents with a built phenomenon for all to see, these same District residents will be expecting an exemplary restored and re-imagined MLK building that both meets the needs of a 21st century urban library’s central facility as well as one that will provide a transformative “third place” destination at the Library’s strategic downtown location. Robust and direct community involvement and interaction with both the Library’s professional and technical staff and that of the design team will be critical to the success of the resultant reconstruction.

Two subsequent factors are critical to these initial steps, and are so noted in the Library’s press release, which concludes by stating that “upon contract approval, Martinez+Johnson and Mecanoo will work with library staff and consultants to determine if the project will be renovated as a stand-alone library or as a mixed-use building with additional floors. No decisions have been made on the type or extent of the renovations or additions to the library.” Critically missing from this brief paragraph is any mention of the Library’s own 14-member advisory panel “that helped select the architecture team” and any reference to the community at large. Once again, the robust involvement of the public is vital to the success of this important civic endeavor.

And, finally, is the question of cost. “The total cost for the project has not been determined. Early estimates for the total cost range from $225 million to $250 million.” The Mayor and City Council have committed an initial $103 million to the project in the District’s current capital budget.

Editor’s Note: For background on this long-running story (since 2006), see “Disposition or Retention of MLK Main Library Building Subject of In-Depth Report to Guide DC Library Trustees,” InTowner, March 2012 issue PDF page 1;