Mies's modernist D.C. library building is getting a complementary companion

Overwhelmed object: Provisional offices and other layers of accumulation at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library have diluted the minimalist vision of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Overwhelmed object: Provisional offices and other layers of accumulation at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library have diluted the minimalist vision of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (Michel Du Cille/the Washington Post)

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By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, May 30, 2010

They have done a pretty thorough job of boarding up most views into the construction site at 10th and G streets NW. But if you walk a half-block north to a narrow side street called G Place, there's a gap in the fence through which you can see the huge pit that will soon house a new office building, complete with a church space that was designed by the renowned New York-based architecture firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien.

All this temporarily open space also serves to reveal a building that has long been hidden in plain sight: the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the 1972 black box designed by the firm of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The building, finished after the death of the great modernist architect, has always been problematic, an austere and alien presence in a city temperamentally allergic to anything that isn't classical, brick or bland. For years it has been in desperate need of renovation.

But for now, seen across the open pit, without the distraction of the church that used to sit next to it, the library looks shockingly good. The construction site offers a temporary gift, a chance to see the library in its full glory, with enough perspective and distance to contemplate its stern geometrical form. Suddenly this glass-and-metal box feels new and powerful, as if all it needed was a little air, a little breathing room.

From a distance you can't see the layers of encrustation that have diluted the power of Mies's minimalism. Up close, the library has all the charm of an old bulletin board cluttered with scraps of paper and old staples. It is almost a museum of social signage: green "smoking zone" signs not so far from red "no smoking" signs, chockablock with a yellow "drug free zone" marker. Above the loading dock entrance is stenciled the height limit for trucks, and a blue security camera and security lighting have been affixed to the exterior, with the attendant electrical fittings running like a metal vine along the wall.

These layers of accumulation, each a small response to a community need, deprive the building of the silence it needs to speak clearly. The rhythm of Mies's black I-beams, which give the tiers of windows above street level their basic meter, can't be heard against the low but constant cacophony of competing messages that have been attached to the building.

Obscured views

The clutter continues inside, where the Great Hall, dominated by a large mural of King, also houses a kiosk selling de-accessioned books, a video phone booth, a temporary stage, a tub for recycling cellphones, tables for displaying books, movable art pods that serve as exhibition space, and special shelves for books pertinent (at the moment) to National Bike Month.

The glass walls of the library's southeast corner are filled with posters for library programs and community events, obscuring the views. Giant metal grates prevent people from using the walkways built around the base of the building, and a guardrail has been installed to keep people from tripping where the grade of Ninth Street rises from the ground level of the library.

The simple power of the building is fatally marred by all of this, though as you walk through the library with the District's chief librarian, it's not clear if the city can afford Mies's particular brand of beauty. Ginnie Cooper, who has overseen an extensive program of building new libraries, is also making efforts to preserve this, the library's historic main branch, while making it more accessible to the various communities it serves.

She clearly understands the building and how it should work architecturally. In the main atrium, she points to where extraneous curtains have been removed, and to the ceiling, where the library spent $250,000 cleaning, painting and replacing old lighting.

"Now look at that beautiful plane," she says, pointing to the pattern of glowing fluorescent tubes. "It runs all the way through the Great Hall." Indeed it does, connecting the reading rooms on both sides to the long central atrium space where a few simple, granite-topped librarian's desks are vestigial reminders of a time when libraries were all about the physical retrieval of printed information.

Cooper says the library is looking for an in-house architect to bring a more coherent, longer-term vision to the building. Among his or her first tasks will be relocating the provisional offices that have been built along the southwest windows of the ground floor, in utter and reckless disregard for the clarity of Mies's design.

But when asked why she doesn't take the posters down, she laughs, and you hear the voice of a librarian, not an aesthete. There's nothing that clearly marks the building as a library, she says, which is why the posters will remain. Cooper is looking to find a balance between the building's rigorous architectural demands and its evolving purpose as a library. Only great pots of money can slice through that Gordian knot.

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