clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Remembering Mies van der Rohe's Influence on the MLK Library

New, 3 comments

With steel and glass, German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe helped define modern architecture by using a "less is more" approach. He single-handedly pioneered Chicago's second generation of architects by integrating a back-to-basics education into the Illinois Institute of Technology's architecture school. Today, March 27, marks his 129th birthday, and all across the Curbediverse, we will be celebrating his works from the Farnsworth House in Chicago to the Seagram Building in New York.

While most of his contributions were centered in Chicago, he did have one contribution to Washington, D.C. that is incapable of being overlooked: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library. As the only public library he ever designed, the MLK Library was built to serve as Washington, D.C.'s central library in the "heart of the business district."

When Mies was chosen to design the building, architect Louis Justement described the decision as a "great mistake," arguing that a local architect should be the designer for Washington's central library. When Mies presented his idea in February 1966, though, D.C. Public Library director Harry Peterson said, "This is the most functional, the most beautiful, and most dramatic library building in the United States, if not in the world."

Nowadays, "functional" and "beautiful" might not be the words used to describe the MLK Library. Since its opening in 1972, the historic landmark has been neglected due to limited funds, resulting in broken water fountains, out of order elevators, and missing ceiling tiles. There are now plans to renovate the entire 440,000-square-foot library at an estimated cost of $225 million to $250 million.

According to the DCPL website, "The aim is to go beyond a library that is merely transactional – a place where you go simply to checkout a book." With the architectural team, Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson, leading the way for the library's renovation, almost all of Mies' influence on the building may be removed.

Some of Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson's plans include removing many of the brick walls on the main floor and adding a large, glass staircases from the main floor to the upper floors. Other plans include building a bookstore, "informal" auditorium, and a restaurant, dubbed the "Mies Restaurant."

The biggest addition planned will be a fifth floor that will accommodate the library's building program and a space for non-profit and government partners. By the end of the renovations, it is possible that the only lasting influence from Mies will be the building's skeleton and eponymous restaurant, but as Mies so aptly stated, "Architecture is impersonal."


· Mies: The Man, The Legacy [Mies van der Rohe Society]
· Mecanoo, Martinez + Johnson to renovate MLK Library [The Washington Post]
· Re-imagine a New Central Library [D.C. Public Library]
· The Forgotten History of Mies van der Rohe's MLK Memorial Library [Architect Magazine]
· The Lasting Effects of Mies van der Rohe's Masterplan for IIT [Curbed Chicago]