The Digital Commons space at the MLK Library. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Public Library has announced a shortlist of three architecture firms to design a renovation and possible addition to the downtown Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.

The firms are the Vancouver-based Patkau Architects, with Ayers Saint Gross and Krueck and Sexton; the Dutch firm Mecanoo, with the D.C.-based Martinez and Johnson Architecture; and the international firm STUDIOS Architecture, with the Freelon Group. The shortlist was selected from 10 firms announced in October.

The teams will submit preliminary ideas for how to update and reinvigorate the problematic but historically significant work by the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Each team will develop two proposals: one for a mixed-used solution that would add floors to the library to accommodate other elements, possibly office or residential space, the other for renovating the building as a stand-alone library.

The renovation challenge is considerable. The 1972 structure was given historic-landmark status in 2007 but has suffered from years of neglect. Its internal systems haven’t been updated, it is energy-inefficient and needs new windows, and the presence of asbestos has made it difficult to maintain. Some of its interiors, especially the main atrium, have original, mid-century-modern cool austerity, but other spaces are dispiriting, and the layout isn’t congenial to the evolving social and technological uses of library space.

Marnique Heath, managing partner in the D.C. office of STUDIOS, said it was too early to discuss what her team might submit, but she said the project is a “great opportunity for us to win an international competition in our backyard.” STUDIOS recently designed three pavilions for the new Canal Park in Southeast Washington, near the Navy Yard. The Freelon Group, which has designed two branch libraries for the D.C. system (Anacostia and Tenley-Friendship), last year headed a study of design issues and possibilities at the Martin Luther King Jr. building, concluding that “it is possible to make the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library a knock-your-socks-off library for the 21st century at the current site, if extensive and expensive improvements are made.”

Phil Freelon said architects are confronting challenges such as this one more frequently.

“It is a type of design problem we see more and more these days; mid-century buildings come around to the point where they need to be brought up to contemporary standards,” he said.

Patkau Architects has done work in the United States and Canada and has significant experience with library design, including the Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec in Montreal and an addition and renovation to the Winnipeg Centennial Library in Manitoba. The latter project, principal John Patkau said, involved opening up a 1970s concrete structure to bring in more light and connect it with a neighboring park. Although very different from the Martin Luther King Jr. building, which has floor-to-ceiling windows, the Winnipeg design was about finding “a few moves in the right places” to transform an inhospitable, modernist structure into something “more outgoing.”

“The MLK suffers from the floors being cut off from one another, so there is potential to allow the building to become much more dynamic and engaging for people in the interior,” Patkau said. “You have an architecture in place that has great power and integrity, and you need to make an intervention in a way that doesn’t compromise that.”

Mecanoo has done work throughout Europe and China and recently designed a project in Boston that may have similarities to the Martin Luther King Jr. building. The Dudley Municipal Center incorporated three existing late-19th-century buildings and new construction to form an enormous mixed-used space that includes retail and the central offices of the Boston public school system. The firm’s partner in the D.C. project, Martinez and Johnson Architecture, has extensive experience, including renovation projects, in the District. Mecanoo’s Web site says this of its approach:

“With Mecanoo the sensory aspect is not only determined by form and space, but by the lavish use of materials. Mecanoo excels in subtle combinations of the most diverse materials, including wood, concrete, copper, bamboo, brick, pebbles, zinc, stone, vegetation, glass and planes of saturated colour.”

The three teams will present their ideas at a public meeting Feb. 15.