D.C. Seeks Architect to Revive Mies van der Rohe’s Ailing MLK Library

Mies van der Rohe‘s sole project in Washington D.C. is the city’s 1972 Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, a transparent box of glass and steel on stilts. While it was lauded at its opening as a modern marvel, more than 40 years of use have left it in disrepair. The library is now seeking a massive internal overhaul to update the heating, the elevators, and the expansive windows that are starting to crack — but it’s also in need of the right architect for the job.

A view into the recessed loggia at the corner of 9th and G Sts. NW

The massive renovation project’s ideal candidate has “extensive experience with preservation and adaptive re-use of modernist style buildings as well as experience designing mixed use projects with retail, housing, and/or office components,” according to a request for proposals the library published Wednesday, according to the Washington Post. The firm would tentatively take on Mayor Vincent Gray’s $103-million proposal to adapt the library into a mixed-use structure, adding five or six floors above the existing building to be leased as revenue-drawing office space. Another proposal calls for $220 million in capital spending on two additional floors. The building could accommodate either without straying from its creator’s vision: Mies had meant for it to be taller, but his design was ultimately “cut off at its knees.”

The cheaper alternative would surely be to raze the library entirely and put a flashier building with modern infrastructure in its stead; two other ailing branches were demolished and replaced by two stunning David Adjaye designs in 2012 for only $13 million each. The city has made it clear, however, that its priority is to preserve the architectural icon, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Preservation guidelines collaboratively drafted by the library, the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, and other preservation groups defined the building’s “horizontality, its symmetry and transparency” as Miesian elements to remain intact. Proposals are due September 23. [The Washington Post]

— Janelle Zara
Image by Cliffords Photography via Docomomo