The Washington, DC Public Library System, which is planning a makeover of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, has released what it calls “preliminary design concepts” by the three architecture firms competing for the job: Studios Architecture and the Freelon Group; Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects; and Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson. The MLK Library (1966) is a late work of Mies van der Rohe, completed after the master’s death in 1969, although designed while he was still active, simultaneously working on the unbuilt Mansion House Square project in London. Usually I don’t like to comment on unbuilt designs, but since the library is built, I will make an exception. The MLK Library is not a masterpiece, but it deserves better than the shabby treatment is receives from Studios and Mecanoo, who place fashionably skewed boxes above (and overlapping) the existing building in feeble attempts to bring excitement to the work of an architect who intentionally avoided excitement. “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good,” he once said. Only Patkau seems to have grasped that deference rather than contrast is the right design strategy. (Patkau adds a floor whose design is almost Miesian.) The library has announced that it “will work with community input to develop a redesign.” Commendable but also scary. It requires architectural sophistication to square the circle that is the particular design challenge of this project. Subtlety is not the usual product of public meetings, where the noisiest often prevail. Poor old Mies.
Update: The library passed over the low-key Patkau proposal and chose the “exciting” Mecanoo scheme. It will be interesting to see if such an insensitive defacement of a modernist landmark will pass muster with the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission. Let’s hope not.