Housing Complex

Guest Post: A Defense of the MLK Library

The MLK library lobby, soon after opening. (DCPL archives)

After reading my column last week about D.C.'s new libraries, Arts Desk contributor and Mies geek Kriston Capps rose to the defense of our much-maligned central library. Here's his response.

When Mayor Anthony Williams took on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library toward the end of his administration, he put forward several roadmaps for change. One solution (his administration’s favored solution) was to close the library, lease its signature building, and move the MLK memorial plaque to a new library in a mixed-use facility at the Old Convention Center site. The other solution was to paint it white.

There’s only one architectural flaw that can be solved either by abandoning the building or slapping a new coat of paint on it, and that’s aesthetic. While his administration made some noises about the building’s technical flaws, including the misleading claim that it couldn’t be wired for WiFi, make no mistake: The Mayor thought it was ugly.

I disagree. The only building in the District designed by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe—in fact the only D.C. building designed by any one of the Big Three of Mies, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright—the MLK Library has always reminded me of the uniquely frustrating promise of the District. Here is the start of this soaring Mies skyscraper that stops before it starts, well short of the Seagram Building in New York or 860–880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. We get a Mies, but a Mies cut off at its knees. It’s a perfect architectural metaphor for the almost-urbanism that characterizes life in Washington. (Tastes differ, so if you prefer, insert the Frank Lloyd Wright development that Dupont Circle lost in 1940 due to the city’s height restriction.)

Mayor Williams was hardly alone in calling it ugly in 2006, but that was hardly fair, either. For a gentrifying set of Washingtonians, the MLK Library resembled, in the words of former Architect editor Brad McKee, “a holdout of the abandonment that defined Washington's years under its former mayor, Marion Barry.” (Heavy disclaimer: McKee is a former City Paper arts editor and I am an editor at Architect.)

It wasn’t always so. For years after the library was established in 1972, it was praised in press accounts as a center for families and education. Then-director Hardy Franklin guided the D.C. Public Library system from a period of struggle in the 1970s through great expansion until the 1990s, when a perfect storm of financial and personal scandals threatened to unravel his many successes. The reputation of the MLK Library in press accounts tracks closely with the fate of the overall system.

So I was surprised to see my gracious host Lydia DePillis describe the building as “so unloved” in her story on the awesome new library expansions under D.C. Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper. In fact, the MLK Library has not been so loved in many years. Cooper has begun to restore the grand vista of the library lobby—one of the great features of Mies’s design—to the nearly blockwide view that was for years obscured by clutter. The Mies-designed furniture I frankly thought long gone has found its way back to the lobby, too.

Of all people, Cooper understands the utility of compelling architecture, as the openings at Shaw and Tenleytown prove. There’s room for improvement at the downtown branch, and maybe even an overhaul. A fifth floor from Mies’s design was never completed. And the library too quickly set aside a design by Washington architect W. Kent Cooper to carve out a central, sky-lit atrium that would rise from the second to fifth floors. (Which would help to solve the poor lighting situation inside, which is horrible and not a problem specific to Mies’s design.) The renovation plan, commissioned by the American Institute of Architects and the library board of trustees, was abandoned in favor of the Williams administration’s plan to replace the library altogether. Now that a new library is off the table, it’s time to return to the sensible proposition: renovation. According to an estimate that the library construction director gave McKee at the time, renovating the library would cost $40 million more than building a new one would have—though CFO Natwar Gandhi said then that both projects would cost roughly the same.

But more than a renovation, even, the MLK Library needs city serves downtown to step up. It will never be an inviting place like Shaw or Tenleytown until the city does something to serve D.C.’s homeless population downtown. The library serves as a de facto shelter and has since before Armstrong v. District of Columbia Public Library. Mayor Williams was kidding himself to say that it was a lack of WiFi, and not an abundance of homeless men, keeping families away. The Gales School, slated for renovation and use as a shelter by Central Union Mission, will help in this regard. Never mind what it means for the library: D.C. needs shelters downtown, full stop.

Further, the MLK Library needs to improve on those services only a downtown library can provide. I’ve witnessed attendance in the Black Studies and Washingtoniana rooms grow over the last few years. The college resource center gets its share of visitors, too—but it ought to be one of the library system’s most popular destinations. High-speed computers, college application experts, essay tutors, and qualified high-school guidance counselors are not something every D.C. public school or charter school boasts. One excelsior college resource center downtown could serve as a backstop for many schools without resources.

With the Shaw and Tenleytown libraries, Cooper has drawn on the transformative power of architecture to draw new and old users. With the Mies downtown, she has her work cut out for her: Simply by undoing decades of neglect she’ll get a transformative building back.

  • D.C. Russell

    I haven't been in the MLK Library for years. But I used it several days a week when it was brand new. And I cursed the architect every time.

    Two lousy elevators, often out of order, and no public access to the stairs, at the beginning. How could anyone claiming to be an architect design a less functional multistory library building?

    Famous architect, yes. Striking exterior, yes. Nice lobby, yes.

    But functional for is stated purpose? Not until others started fiddling with it.

  • Drez

    D.C. needs shelters downtown, full stop.
    The use of the MLK library and any need for shelters downtown are not linked, as your statement implies.
    The truth is that no one can compel homeless to use shelters, just as no one can compel homeless not to use libraries and, when presented with a choice, some homeless choose libraries.
    It's not like this issue started with the closing of Franklin, after all. And it's not like CCNV has closed...

  • LOL

    When I have been downtown near the library in the evenings, I see homeless people lined up to catch some shuttle. My friend who works near there told me that the same shuttles drop the homeless off in the morning. I don't know if compelling homeless people not to use libraries is realistic, but when the bus drops you of there in front of MLK each morning it seems like somebody else is choosing libraries for the homeless.

    Either way, there should be a more robust system for dealing with the problem of homelessness. I doubt that many homeless would choose to remain on the streets if given a real opportunity and some real resources.

  • Carl Rollins

    This is a much more thoughtful article and discussion than the one appearing in Sunday's Post. To anyone who has spent time in DC's public libraries (including MLK downtown) clearly there is a link between libraries and homelessness. The issue is not so much the shelters but "daycare"--something for these folks to do during the day, and the intractable problem of those who refuse to sleep in the shelters for whatever reason. MLK serves as a locker room/rest area for dozens daily.

    I question the long-term impact of architectural design in attracting users to libraries. Unfortunately, for many reading has become passe. Except for children playing video games, and the occasional high school and college student on a mission you could fire a canon off in practically any branch and not hit anyone in a DC library seeking to edify themselves.

    Our young people, primarily those that attend public school, don't value learning as they should. These problems go beyond libraries to DCPS and families thermselves. An intrepid lot, I don't think DC's teenagers or their families are much intimidated by homeless men brushing their teeth in the bathroom and pretending to read while they're snoozing. They need programming; the tutors and college application help noted in the piece. Skip the renovation and fund something that makes it worthwhile for them to come out.

  • Newhce

    Nice one Kriston. I agree!

  • Bob See

    MLK's problems aren't the architecture; that's just the easiest thing to blame. It's like planners from the 50s blaming a city's social problems on the built environment and tearing it down.

  • Thayer-D

    There's definatley room for aesthetic differences of opinion, but what I always heard from the staff was how horribly the library worked. Yes, functionally, for a modernist master like Mies, you would think that might come in to play when assessing the building. Of course, like so many invested in Modernism's hold on the proffesion, it's all about the look. A metaphore for DC's urban aspirations? The usual refrain from the "I really wish I lived in New York" crowd. DC could definatley be a more urbane city, but it has it's own charm and character, and one defining aspect of that character is that it thankfully doesn't have glass and steel skyscraper canyons, which btw only look good from Jearsy or Brooklyn.

    As a historical fragment, the building should definatley be saved, but if function is any measure, it should definatley be repurposed. The homless problem is more a sociological issue I won't go into here, sufice it to say that if I was homless, I too would seek shelter at a peacefull and warm public library. But if Mies's other work is any guide, since he crammed any and every function behind his glass and steel grids, why not think about what function would thrive in this environment. I would propose a modern sculpture museum tied with the Smithsonian. The "universal" space (read-open floor plan) would be ideal with it's pure tinted glass walls as an exhibition space. As any modern condo project with the same type of glass skin atests, people, by and large, aren't exibitionists...at least when making breakfast.

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  • Miss b

    Thayer-D - you make some very good points but your spelling is atrocious.

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  • JMS

    The building is by Mies van der Rohe, one of the great architects of the world. This town appreciates little so it is no surprise that it would go over your heads. It is not going anywhere freaks so get over it.

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