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Take a video tour of design for soon-to-be renovated MLK library branch

The District of Columbia Public Library has released a video tour of the final renovation design for its main branch, the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library downtown. Plans for major changes to the austere modernist building, designed by Mies van der Rohe, began with a design competition in 2011. Since then, the winner of that contest, the Dutch firm Mecanoo in partnership with D.C.-based Martinez + Johnson, has been doing what contest winners for major civic projects inevitability must do: accommodate bold ideas to existing realities.

The original competition design included a rectangular addition with several new floors atop the existing building. That has been replaced by a more modest rooftop garden and pavilion.

“That was something that had been proposed as a potential revenue generator,” says Richard Reyes-Gavilan, chief librarian. “We took a close look at that, and we saw that it wasn’t economically viable and very difficult to do without compromising some of the library programs.”

Other things fell out or were downsized, including The Mies Restaurant, a “destination” dining facility. That won’t happen, but there will be a cafe. The final design for the project, now estimated at $208 million, is both more manageable and better integrates new spaces and programs with the existing architecture. The 1972 building received historic designation in 2007, which protects both its metal and glass rectilinear façade as well as interior spaces. Some early designs from Mecanoo and other competition participants proposed radical changes to the interior that likely would never have passed muster with design review agencies in the District. The “fly-through” video released this morning suggests that the new building will at least retain a strong flavor of the original modernist interior.

Kennicott on the design finalists

Reyes-Gavilan says he was pleased with the final design, which will add about 100,000 square feet of new public space within the existing building. This includes changes to make basement space more usable, space added on the roof, and reconfiguration of the interior, which reclaims dead or inaccessible spaces for public use. During renovation, which will begin this spring (the branch closes March 4) and continue through 2020, library offices and a small public facility will move to an office building at 1990 K St. NW.

When the library returns to its new facility, the collection will remain intact, with the exception of culling materials deemed outdated (Reyes-Gavilan cited old science textbooks, civil service examination manuals and public health volumes that have been superseded by new developments). “We are closing the building for the first time in 50 years so we have a little bit of time and a stronger mandate to look at those collections that are obsolete,” he says. But the process is merely a more intensive approach to the library’s ongoing survey of its collection.

The new building, he says, will have a more serviceable and “legible” layout. The library hopes that the renovated facility will become a major social and community hub in the already booming neighborhood near the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, and the restaurants and other businesses that have enlivened the area between Seventh Street NW and the City Center development a few blocks to the west.