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

Changes coming

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)

Despite proposals over the years to turn the building into office or retail space, Mies's vision was symbolically perfect -- at the time -- for a library. It emphasizes a clear view into a glass box for books, a vision that will remain powerful as long as governments resist transparency and demand the right to keep tabs on what people are reading.

The demolition of the adjacent First Congregational United Church of Christ, built in the late 1950s for a congregation that is the oldest integrated flock in the city, has revealed the monumental purity of Mies's vision. But only temporarily. If you want to see it, get there fast. Already cement is flowing into the gaping pit.

The building that will rise, an office tower constructed over a black-brick base that will house a new church for First Congregational, is a study in the pragmatic, fast-changing world of real estate and development. At first, this was to be a condo development. Then the economy tanked, the first developer sold the project to a new one, the condos were replaced by offices and retail space was added. But the building is going forward, the first commercial development project in the United States by the giant Swedish conglomerate Skanska.

High expectations

The new tower, which will slowly box in the old Mies building, may be better than most. Certainly there should be high expectations for the church space, the first Washington project from Williams and Tsien. Tod Williams says they have tried to capture the spirit of a church that serves people who "have not been the primary movers and shakers of Washington" but have raised powerful voices for social justice. A "light box" will signify "the spirit of illumination" and connect the church space to the street. The tower above, primarily the work of Cunningham Quill Architects, will be "largely a quiet structure" that doesn't "challenge the base or the Mies building."

The new building doesn't overtly defer to the older one, nor does it try to compete with its austerity. That doesn't mean that Williams is ignoring it. But the Mies building is one of those hard, intractable things such as one finds in a modern sculpture gallery.

"The Mies building looks great in a field," he says. "But in a city, that beautiful object is in isolation from the beauty of the city."

A few years ago, before the library received landmark status that will protect it from demolition or radical alteration, it seemed that perhaps no one in the city really understood the old modernist landmark. Now, people do understand it, but that understanding is tinged with a sense of resignation about its virtues. It needs to stand alone, its clean, perfect edges seen against a blank backdrop, not the stylistic heterogeneity of its neighborhood and the historical forces those styles represent. It wants to be timeless in a city that is marching ever forward.

The hole at 10th and G streets offers a little fissure in the city's timeline, a brief chance to see the building speak with its full rhetorical might. But soon this monument to the old-fashioned book will be a bit like the thing it symbolically celebrated: just another volume on the city's shelf, old-fashioned, a little lost among its neighbors, yet filled with enormous potential for anyone who bothers to meet it on its own terms.

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