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Through Glass Darkly: D.C.'s Poor Vision for Library

The District government proposes selling the 1972 Mies van der Rohe building.
The District government proposes selling the 1972 Mies van der Rohe building. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

The idea that the 1972 Mies building cannot be renovated into a first-class 21st-century library is absurd. (It's also predictable. It was advanced in a consultant's report for the city that -- surprise, surprise -- agreed with the wishes of its client.)

Yes, the building has suffered from years of poor maintenance. All its internal systems -- heating, ventilation, plumbing, electricity and such -- are in need of immediate, thoroughgoing attention. Yet as architect Arthur Cotton Moore pointed out recently in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post, the building (unlike, say, a 19th-century stone pile) was constructed in a way that would make infrastructure replacement a relative snap.

And as a local American Institute of Architects team demonstrated in a study six years ago, the building could be made even airier and more flexible by adding a discreet extra story and scooping out part of its insides. (The team's notion of painting the facades a silvery white, however, is disconcerting, disrespectful and unneeded. Mies's somber black will do just fine, thank you.)

The city's idea of selling the Mies building to help pay for its new toy is shameful. There is simply no other way to put it. It is to treat a significant work of architecture as if it were a trifling leftover.

There is, of course, another idea. Why not renovate the Mies building and have a new library? The building was designed to be -- and is -- a proud public structure. That is its essence. It would take vision, and more money, to find another innovative public issue for this great pavilion. But then, vision is what great planning is all about.

Resurrecting a moribund planning department just happens to be one of the tremendous accomplishments of the Williams era. But if the city persists in ignoring the historical and aesthetic values of one its most important public structures, Williams will be leaving on a sad note.

And, oh, while we're on that point, whatever happened to the great, one-acre public square that was supposed to be the vivid centerpiece of the mixed-use development on the 10-acre site of the old convention center? It seems to have just about disappeared in plans shown several weeks ago to the National Capital Planning Commission by Hines and the Foster and Partners architecture firm, the distinguished team selected by the city in a competition to develop the site.

Come on, Mr. Mayor. We know your time is short, but we also know that you can do better. Fix the Mies building and put it to proper use. And insist on that great public square.


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