Reopens after a Humanistic Transformation
DATELINE – After a three-year transformation by Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo, working in collaboration with OTJ Architects, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library (MLKL) has re-opened in Washington D.C.. The library, which opened in 1972, is reborn as a contemporary lifelong-learning hub which reaches out to all communities. It was the only library designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the twentieth century’s greatest architects, and was subsequently named after Dr. King, the towering civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. Francine Houben, principal, founding partner and creative director of Mecanoo, says: “We have been guided by Martin Luther King’s timeless values and implemented them in this, the most important library for the people of America’s capital”.

Project Name: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library
Studio Name: Mecanoo

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Honoring the Legacies of Mies and King

The transformation of MLKL brings a new, humanistic environment at all levels, designed and programmed for the future, and it adds facilities including a public roof garden, a theater, signature staircases and a suite of community studios and workshops. A central objective of the new design, as Houben explains, is “to highlight the library’s social gathering purpose and its strong presence as a social landmark in the city”. The design approach balances the very different legacies of Mies van der Rohe and Dr King.

Mecanoo’s extensive research included dialogue with Jack Bowman, an architect who worked on the original building, and Charles Cassell, who led the campaigner to name the library ofter Dr. King. If design decisions could favor either Mies’ legacy or Dr. King’s values, but not both, Houben would choose to go with Dr. King. “We must honor him by the programming, and by opening the building to everyone”, she says.

The 39,600 m2 (426,000 sq ft) rejuvenation project respects the powerful simplicity of the original building. It is an example of Mies van der Rohe’s distinctive rectilinear black glass-and-steel aesthetic, which characterizes his iconic skyscrapers in New York and Chicago. The MLKL’s rectangular form has three glazed floors which float above a first (ground) floor recessed behind a colonnade of black steel columns.

When Houben first visited the old MLKL, she found that it “was not a good building technically and it was not a good library… all the books got daylight and all the people didn’t get any at all”. These and other fundamental shortcomings are eliminated in the new design.

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An environment that is warm, social and healthy

The main G Street entrance leads into the Great Hall, the lobby. Original features are restored. Below a magnificent mural from 1986 by Don Miller, which celebrates Dr King’s life, Mecanoo has recessed the wall and lined it with vertical wooden slats. Bench steps rise from floor level, drawing people to sit, chat, read and watch. The intervention brings warmth and better acoustics to the lobby, and boosts the library’s social dimension from the moment you enter. As with all the library’s features, it is clear what was Mies’ original design, and what is new and designed by Mecanoo. The lobby also hosts new murals by Nekisha Durrett.

A new café is partitioned by glass from the Great Hall, and extends to an outside area on the library’s north-east corner. Brick walls have been cut back so that it is open to the sidewalk, connecting the library with the city.

Mecanoo has introduced two new wood-lined staircases characterized by their sculptural fluidity. Stairs are wide, terrazzo surfaced and curve up around a middle void from the lower ground floor to a new fifth floor, where natural light falls through circular skylights. The staircases exemplify Mecanoo’s organic styling, bring a soft, sweeping rhythm to vertical circulation, and they act as social connectors. Furthermore, as Houben comments: “The visual attraction of the staircases encourages people to use them, and they’re a healthy alternative to taking the elevator”.

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A library that offers laboratories, skills training, community services and more

Mecanoo has opened the lower ground floor to library users for the first time. It hosts a wide range of facilities that offer resources and skills training. The new Fabrication Lab is a suite of workshops with hands-on equipment, and as Houben comments, “this is a space where you can make noise!”. In contrast, the Studio Lab’s rooms are quiet, enabling activities such as music, dance and yoga.

From the second floor upwards, book shelves had previously blocked the windows on all sides. These have been cleared away, allowing natural light deep into the building. On the second floor, a continuous reading counter stretches along the window overlooking G Street. It is part of a 220m (720ft)-long “Reading Ribbon” over multiple floors. The second floor now hosts a colorful new children’s library, divided into three “age zones”, and includes a slide beside one of the staircases. Fun was missing in the old library, but now it’s built in, and the slide even introduces thrill.

On the third floor, the highlight is the Grand Reading Room. Previously just one floor high, removal of a ceiling now gives it double height, visually connecting into the fourth floor reading room above it. A new installation by Xenobia Bailey hangs from the new two-story ceiling, an artist known for her strong traditional African and contemporary urban aesthetics.

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D.C. gains a new auditorium and a public roofgarden

The fourth floor now features a major 291-capacity auditorium. This double-height event space has warm wood-lined walls which curve around the corners, and banked seating which rises into an entirely new fifth floor. There, the auditorium lobby is bordered by conference rooms and an Events Center, which opens into a new sky-garden. The new floor is contained within a trapezoid, glazed pavilion, sheltered by a roof cantilevering out around it. Set back from the edges, the pavilion is not visible from the street, from where the building’s profile and geometry look exactly as Mies designed it.

Surrounding the pavilion is new roof garden. Paths crisscrossed between angular planters which bring biodiversity into the heart of Washington. This hidden yet public oasis offers everyone tranquility, proximity to nature and an open sky. “The rooftop was a desert”, comments Houben. “Now it becomes a park for the city”.

Mies had designed a passive library to sit and read in, but the reborn library is designed to be active, a place for doing and meeting. It now embodies the spirit of advancement, inclusivity and hope that Dr King brought to the nation. The introduction of organic surfaces and softer lines is a strong contrast to Mies’ strict hard-surfaced rectilinearity, but it creates synergy, not opposition, with the original building.

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A building worthy of its namesake

Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director DC Public Library (DCPL), says: “The modernized Martin Luther King Jr. Library delivers to the residents of Washington, D.C. an inspiring center for learning truly worthy of the building’s namesake and a thoughtful, meticulous renovation of Mies van der Rohe’s historic landmark. Mecanoo’s vision, paired with OTJ’s attention to detail, has resulted in a stunning achievement that will be cherished for generations to come”.

Gary Martinez, Senior Principal at OTJ Architects, remarks: “The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library has been the singular focus of our Culture, Arts and Education studio for the past six years and we are immensely gratified to see our partnership with Mecanoo and the DCPL come to such a successful fruition. This platform for the exchange of knowledge and ideas will provide all residents of our city with a venue in which to share values and strengthen that which brings us together as a community.”

Francine Houben, principal, founding partner and creative director of Mecanoo, says: “The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library reconciles the Mies building, the values of Martin Luther King, and what the library of the future must be. We have made the MLKL more organic, more transparent and more open, both physically and in how it reaches out to Washington D.C.. Like never before, this great library extends its welcome to all communities, across all ages and backgrounds, and gives them the resources to build better lives.”

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Process and realisation

OTJ Architects served as the project’s Executive Architect from its Washington, D.C. offices. Under the leadership of Gary Martinez, OTJ’s team navigated the approvals and entitlement process for MLKL that engaged the US Commission of Fine Arts, the Historic Preservation Review Board, and the National Capital Planning Commissions. OTJ also designed the new 5th floor Event Center and rendered final approval on $2M of custom fabricated millwork throughout the project.

‘A Legacy of Mies and King’ – Renovating the Public Library of Washington D.C.

The documentary film follows architect Francine Houben as she investigates the past and present in order to design a world-class library. Francine delves into the archives, meets contemporaries of Mies and King, speaks to current visitors of the library, and participates in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Peace Walk. During her quest, both the building’s namesake and the original architect look over her shoulder critically.

“A Legacy of Mies and King” was written, filmed, and directed by Nienke Andersson with music and sound engineering was done by KH music. The documentary was funded by The Society of Arts of The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in collaboration with Mecanoo.

About Mecanoo Architects

Mecanoo, officially founded in Delft, the Netherlands, in 1984, is made up of a multidisciplinary staff of over 140 creative professionals from 25 countries. The team includes architects, engineers, interior designers, urban planners, landscape architects and architectural technicians. The company is led by creative director and founding partner Francine Houben. The extensive collective experience, gained over three decades, results in designs that are realized with technical expertise and great attention to detail. Mecanoo’s projects range from single houses to complete neighbourhoods and skyscrapers, cities and polders, schools, theatres, libraries, rail stations, hotels, museums, and even a chapel.

Discovering unexpected solutions for the specifics of programme and context is the foremost challenge in all of Mecanoo’s assignments. Each design is considered in terms of its cultural setting, place and time. As such, Mecanoo treats each project as a unique design statement embedded within its context and orchestrated specifically for the people who use it. Within the practice are knowledge centres which enable us to stay current on technological and design innovations in sustainability, eco-engineering, technology, education and learning, high-rise and mobility.

Preoccupied not by a focus on form, but on process, consultation, context, urban scale and integrated sustainable design strategies, the practice creates culturally significant buildings with a human touch. Selected works include Delft University of Technology Library, Delft (1997), La Llotja Theatre and Congress Centre, Lleida, Spain (2010), Library of Birmingham, United Kingdom (2013), Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, Boston, United States (2015), Delft City Hall and Train Station (2017), National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, Taiwan (2018) and Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, New York City, United States (2020).

About OTJ Architects

Primed at the intersection of workplace design and performing arts architecture, US-based OTJ Architects partners with leaders in the commercial real estate, corporate, government, culture, arts and entertainment, as well as nonprofit sectors.

With offices in Washington, D.C., New York, N.Y., Miami, FL, San Francisco, CA, Charlotte, N.C., and Boston, MA, OTJ delivers enduring human centric solutions that drive optimal staff performance, promote wellness, and maximize each organization’s real estate investment. Signature recent projects include workplaces for Adobe, Anheuser-Busch, BMW, Yelp, and United Way, Innovation Centers for Booz Allen Hamilton and Capital One, and the renovation of New York’s iconic Webster Hall, and the Cincinnati Music Hall.


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