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Dream Revised
Washington, D.C. picks team to revamp Mies van der Rohe's Martin Luther King Memorial Library.
The winning scheme by Martinez + Johnson and Mecanoo.
Courtesy Martinez + Johnson and Mecanoo

Web Extra: Check out all three shortlisted schemes on the AN Blog.

In mid-February, the D.C. Public Library announced that a design team of local firm Martinez + Johnson Architecture and Dutch practice Mecanoo had been selected to reimagine the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The decision caps a lengthy process by the city to decide the fate of the Mies van der Rohe–designed building. The landmarked structure was completed in 1972 and is expected to receive renovations that could cost up to $250 million. Roughly half of those funds have already been allocated in the city’s capital budget.

“Today, the District takes another step towards giving our residents the great central library they deserve in a way that helps improve both the public’s library experience and our library system’s bottom line,” said D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray when announcing the winner.

The firms made two proposals, including one with a new mixed-use addition above the library.

This competition presented a host of complex challenges for the three finalists. The teams were not only tasked with honoring the legacy of the Civil Rights leader, for whom the building was named, but reimaging the role of a library in the digital age. And they had to create a welcoming and inviting public space, while adhering to the strict form of Mies’ modernism.

In their winning submission, Martin + Johnson and Mecanoo said they were driven to “keep Mies: Mies. Or even better: improve Mies in a contemporary Miesian way.” Much of the team’s proposal focused on dramatic upgrades to the library’s dated interior. Starting with a more “welcoming” entrance, the team wanted to create a space that would attract visitors of all ages. Their plan includes opening up the building’s interior to bring in more light, and updating the layout to better meet the needs of a modern-day library.

The interiors will preserve many Miesian elements.

“Libraries are not about the outside,” said Francine Houben of Mecanoo when presenting her team’s proposal. “It’s what’s inside the building, that’s the library.” She said she wants to “make the building more human, maybe even give it a little more of a female touch.”

For the passerby, the most notable difference to the revamped library will be two new cafes and a possible mixed-use addition to the building’s roof, which would also include new gardens. The entire project aims for Gold LEED Certification.

This winning proposal, though, does not necessarily provide an accurate glimpse into the library’s future. Once the contract is finalized by local officials, the design team “will work with library staff and consultants to determine if the project will be renovated as a stand-alone library or as a mixed-use building with additional floors.”

And according to the D.C. Public Library, “no decisions have been made on the type or extent of the renovations or additions to the library.”

Henry Melcher