The only (amazing) library designed by Mies van der Rohe now also has a rooftop terrace open to the public
The transformation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC, has created a humanistic environment at every level through a renovation project designed and programmed for the future. A public rooftop garden, an auditorium, staircases, a suite of study spaces, community workshops, and even a slide – this is a library that’s been designed and built to reflect today’s concept of libraries as places that are much more than simply storage facilities for books. The project was the work of Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson. As Francine Houben, creative director of Mecanoo Architecten, says, “A key objective of the new design was to strengthen the library’s role as a place for social gathering as well as its strong presence as a social landmark in the city.” And this was no easy task, given the important legacy of the building, the only library designed by Mies van der Rohe.
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The objective of the renovation of this public library was to create a space that would both reflect the contemporary culture of Washington, DC, and respond to the new needs of the city. The MLK Library was built in 1972 to a design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and is dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. The fact that this is the only library ever designed by Mies van der Rohe, best known for his skyscraper designs in New York and Chicago, presented quite a few challenges for Mecanoo Architecten, whose research included talking with Jack Bowman, an architect who worked on the original building, and Charles Cassell, who was behind the library’s dedication to Dr. King.
Involving 426,250 square feet (39,600 m2) of floorspace, the project respects the simplicity of the original building, an iconic rectilinear glass and black steel structure. The MLK Library has three glazed levels that appear to float above the ground level floor, set back behind a black steel colonnade.
When Houben first visited the old MLK Library, she found that “it was not a good building technically and not a good library … the books weren’t illuminated by daylight and people were always in the dark, too.” These and other fundamental shortcomings have been eliminated in the new design.
The main entrance on G Street NW leads to the Great Hall, the main entrance space. Beneath Don Miller’s magnificent 1986 mural that celebrates the life of Dr. King, Mecanoo has created a recess in the wall and lined it with vertical wooden slats. Stepped seating from floor level attracts people to sit, chat, read, and watch. In general, the change has given extra warmth and better acoustics to the Great Hall, improving the social dimension of the library from the moment you enter.
A new café is partitioned off from the Great Hall by glass and extends into an outdoor area in the northeastern corner of the library. Sections of the brick walls have been removed so that the café is open to the sidewalk, therefore connecting the library with the city. Mecanoo has created two new wood-finished staircases, both marked by their sculptural fluidity. The stairs are wide, have landings, and curve around a central void from the basement up to the new top floor, where natural light filters through circular skylights.
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The library also offers workshops, skills training, community services, and more. Mecanoo has opened the basement level to users for the first time by creating the new Fabrication Lab, a suite of equipped workshop spaces. As Houben says, “this is a space where you can make some noise!” Also at basement level, the Studio Lab rooms are quiet places, intended for activities such as music, dance, and yoga.
The bookshelves have been redesigned to allow natural light to penetrate deep inside the building. But the real highlight of the project is on the second floor, where there’s now a new (and colorful) children’s section, divided into three “age zones,” complete with a slide next to one of the staircases.
The Grand Reading Room is on the third floor. Following the removal of the ceiling, this is now a double-height space that’s visually connected to the reading room on the level above. An intriguing artwork by Xenobia Bailey, an artist known for her traditional African aesthetic, hangs from the newly built ceiling.
On the fourth floor of the library is a 291-seat auditorium with curving wood-paneled walls and tiered seating. On the fifth floor is a trapezoidal glass pavilion that opens onto the new sky garden, next to which is a rooftop garden. “The rooftop was a desert,” says Houben. “Now it’s a park for the city.” The fact that the garden and pavilion are set back from the building perimeter is a masterstroke, since it makes them invisible from the street, leaving the library’s profile exactly as Mies designed it.
Location: Washington DC
Project: Mecanoo, Martinez + Johnson
Photography by Robert Benson and Trent Bell, courtesy of Mecanoo