“There will certainly be a lot of discussion about it,” said Maloney, who also attended the meeting. But he says preservationists are aware of the challenges faced by the library and “will go into it with an open mind.”
Both plans presented by Freelon will raise serious philosophical issues about what is essential to the Mies design. A set of historic preservation guidelines — drafted by the library with input from the D.C. Historic Preservation Office and other key preservation groups — emphasized several essential “Miesian” elements that should be preserved, including the building’s horizontality, its symmetry and transparency. But it also stressed the need for advanced technology, sustainable design and an update of the basic programmatic needs of the library.
Mies’s design structured the interior, which was meant to be flexible and adaptable, as a series of five-foot modules and 30-foot bays, with shelving and reading tables laid out in an orderly march of regular units. Freelon’s vision argues for a more flexible internal layout, more reflective of the complicated webs and interconnections of the modern knowledge economy. Preservation purists might argue that Freelon’s design will simply preserve a Mies facade around a radically different internal aesthetic.
But the more intriguing of Freelon’s two programs, the one that stresses a vertical central atrium, exposes the rationalism of Mies’s design almost like a slice through geological layers of rock. It emphasizes the rectilinearity of the original structure while allowing a more flexible adaptation of the space.
The argument will come down to how deeply one channels the basics of what Mies was after. If underneath the modules and bays was a more profound desire to give easy, direct access to knowledge, then Freelon’s design re-creates Miesian ideals in a new language. If one believes he worshipped the grid for pure aesthetic appeal, then the new designs might seem to do violence to his ethos.
The positive news, however, is that the library wants to have a conversation about staying in its historic home and isn’t planning to set sail for a new one. That would keep the library in a revitalized neighborhood, near two major Smithsonian museums, two central axes of the Metro system and the mushroom field of new buildings rising on the old Convention Center site.
It would keep the library at the symbolic center of the city, which is right where it should want to be.