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

By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, May 30, 2010; E09

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.

Changes coming

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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