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

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

Something has gone terribly wrong at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library.

No, it's not the non-working elevators, the outdated dumbwaiter system, the unreliable climate-control system, the windowless offices or any of the other nettlesome stuff that visitors and staff members often complain about.

Rather, it is a fundamental lack of respect for the building on the part of the library's upper echelons and the administration of Mayor Anthony Williams. It would seem that the mayor and his colleagues have no idea what they have here. Or don't care.

This low, black steel building with the immense dark windows is a fine example of the late work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe -- or, simply, Mies -- one of the past century's two or three greatest architects. The building, in other words, is an important historic artifact -- our only building by the great man. And in its quietly authoritative way, it is very beautiful.

The Mies work, with its dark skin and its succinct rhythm of undecorated columns spaced 30 feet apart, remains a taut 20th-century complement to the Old Patent Office Building. That's the block-big, marble-clad 19th-century building with those stalwart Doric porticos, standing diagonally across from the library at the corner of Ninth and G streets NW.

Mies showed his admiration for classical architecture in his building, with its inherent order and restraint. The two structures make a great urban pairing. And it's a tripling, if you take into account the swooping glass and steel facade of Devrouax & Purnell's recent Pepco headquarters, also at Ninth and G.

As I can testify from long years of personal acquaintance, the library is a splendidly welcoming public building. The lightness and spaciousness of the big reading rooms are a revelation. On occasion, I've written columns there simply for the pleasure of sitting in those big rooms, with their generous views of the city.

Tastes change, of course, and the pendulum in Washington long ago swung away from the honed-down minimalism of which Mies was the unquestioned avatar. But there is a big difference between a firsthand Mies and the many second- and third-rate versions that sprang up in Washington, as well as all over the world.

Besides, changing taste is but a fickle reason to neglect a fine public building. The more important explanation for the official disdain, I suspect, is the city's desire to build a new central library as a principal part of redeveloping the old convention center site just up the street.

Many cities, including Denver and Seattle, have made new libraries a central focus of downtown renewal efforts. Endeavoring to ensure that these facilities are broadly popular -- by including sophisticated built-in electronics, special meeting spaces, cafes, targeted programs and the like -- seems to have worked pretty well, especially when coordinated with improvements to the overall library system.

Bold contemporary architecture also has been an integral part of the strategy. One could hardly choose architects more different in style and philosophy than American Institute of Architects Gold Medalist Michael Graves (in Denver) and Pritzker Prize laureate Rem Koolhaas (in Seattle), yet they produced first-rate buildings that have gained much international attention and local support.

So what's wrong with the Washington plan? Nothing, except that we already have a distinguished main library in the heart of downtown.

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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