Check It Out

Check It Out

British architect David Adjaye has worked in London, Stockholm, Denver, and New York. But one rainy night in mid-December, he was working the activities room of Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Anacostia, one of the poorest parts of Washington, D.C.

Adjaye, who is designing two new branches of the D.C. Public Library (DCPL), was in town to meet with community activists about his plans, which are still in development. Four other branches—two each by Davis Brody Bond Aedas (DBBA) and the Freelon Group—are under way, and all six are expected to open by the end of 2011 as part of the D.C. Public Library’s $225 million capital construction budget for new building and library renovations.  

“My practice has always been to work within a community,” Adjaye told the crowd. “It’s not just about making libraries, but about making centers of excellence for the community.”

Excellence isn’t a word usually associated with DCPL. For a city with an architectural masterpiece as its central library—the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library is one of the last buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—Washington has done a poor job of maintaining even basic library services, let alone improving and expanding them.

“Washington isn’t known for bringing in name architects,” said Michael Wiencek, whose D.C.-based firm, Wiencek+Associates, is working with Adjaye. “If you push the envelope, everyone wants to push back.”

But things have changed rapidly under Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian since 2006. Along with the new branches, she has begun renovations on three others, and in all cases has placed a priority on design, even at the risk of higher costs.

“You can really see the difference a building can make in people’s experiences,” said Cooper, who was formerly the executive director of the Brooklyn Public Library. “It’s one of the important ways a government interacts with the public.”

Under Cooper, DCPL is moving toward multiuse community functions, and all the new branches will have a large flex-space component.

“It’s not just about books, it’s about services,” says DBBA’s Peter Cook, who runs the Washington office and whose mother once worked as a DCPL librarian. “It’s a place for job training, homework assistance, having a place for community activists to meet, everything an old library is not.”

Community space is particularly important in the lower-income parts of Washington, where years of public underinvestment have left locals with few places to meet outside of churches.

“The libraries we had before were cookie-cutter designs,” said Miles Steele, an Anacostia resident who helped select Adjaye for the job. “But communities are like fingerprints, each one is different. And libraries should be copies of those fingerprints.”