Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library
As the highlight of the Washington, D.C. Public Library system’s ambitious initiative to renovate its aging infrastructure, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library offers a new sense of purpose in the age of digital information. The library’s landmark structure, originally designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, has been transformed from a 1970s cultural complex into a socially sustainable engine that drives the important exchange of information.
The library’s renovation was part of a years-long effort to revitalize nearly 20 neighborhood libraries across the district. From the outset of the project, the design team engaged a wide array of stakeholders through an open, public dialogue that helped clarify the design’s direction. The team led a rigorous entitlement process with city, state, and federal agencies that included regular public hearings. Its extensive research throughout the process involved Jack Bowman, an architect who worked on the original building, and Charles Cassell, who led the successful campaign to name the library after Dr. King.
The original structure is Mies’ only building in Washington and the architect’s only fully realized library in the world, and the library was the district’s first memorial to honor Dr. King. Previous efforts by historic preservation activists resulted in the building receiving landmark status in 2007, ending earlier discussions of demolition or relocation. A priority for the team was finding an equitable and appropriate balance between the legacies of both Mies and Dr. King, which, in turn, became an overarching touchstone for all design and restoration decisions. The project also provided the team a critical opportunity to carefully examine the structure on a holistic level and organize its program as a cohesive sequence.
A central objective of the new design was to highlight the library’s purpose as a social gathering place and its presence as a community landmark. The design respects the powerful simplicity of the original building, a clear example of the architect’s distinctive rectilinear black glass and steel aesthetic, while reflecting Mies’ and Dr. King’s very different legacies. A unique strategy employed by the team is demonstrated in the application of a contrasting design idiom for the new architecture. A wood-slatted, curvilinear finish and form stands in humanizing contrast to Mies’ signature work. Applied to the interior and exterior elements, service pods, auditorium, and stairs, the materials and colors harmonize and compliment the form and discipline of the original library.
The new library stands as an agile vehicle for the many ways patrons access information. Four existing floors connect with a fifth-floor addition and rooftop garden through sculptural stairs and intuitive wayfinding, which offer a much more legible route through the building. The program respects traditional library services but adds a makerspace, café, and children’s library that includes a multi-level slide. The renovation also addresses environmental stewardship and is intended to meet LEED Silver standards.