On a recent evening’s visit to the second floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, I look down at the streets surrounding the building and see a curious scene of urban disorder.
On 9th Street NW, a gray Mercedes convertible with a red interior has been abandoned by the side of the road; one wheel sits up on the curb. A little farther south, at the intersection of 9th and G Streets, four people are nearly flattened to the ground, as if a strong wind had knocked them off-balance.
Looking down on the southern side of the building, I see two people recumbent in the middle of G Street. A third lies on the sidewalk between the library’s front door and another gray Mercedes convertible heading west. Checking out the scene on G Place NW, which runs behind the building, I witness a near-fatality: A light-blue station wagon emerges from an underground ramp, about a car’s length away from a figure sprawled on the pavement.
In truth, the prostrate pedestrian isn’t a few feet from the oncoming vehicle—he’s a few inches away. And though I am at the library, I’m not looking down at the actual street scene below. I’m studying a model of MLK and its surrounding thoroughfares, a miniature of the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed building. Measuring about 3-and-a-half by 7 feet in all, it’s situated on the southeast corner of the second floor, near the entrance to the philosophy and literature area.
“What better way to show the building’s form than to be able to see it as a working model?” says Monica Lofton, director of marketing and communications for the D.C. Public Library. “When you stand on the street, it is a large building, and most large buildings are [difficult] to drink in.”
According to Lofton, the model is of uncertain provenance. “We have to presume that it was built by Mies van der Rohe’s firm, or at least contracted by the firm,” she says.
If the latter, it may have been built by the kind of company David Knoll runs. According to Knoll, president of Rockville-based Knoll Architectural Models Inc., such models carry a price tag disproportionate to their size—as high as $20,000, he says. An average model might take 200 to 350 hours to complete, the larger or more elaborate models as many as 800. On MLK’s model, though the cars are nearly as detailed as most Matchboxes, the pedestrians are rendered impressionistically: To my untrained eye, they look as though they’re made of flecks of tinfoil.
According to Ron Knoll, vice president of Knoll Architectural Models, materials for such tableaux have progressed over the past 40 years, from balsa wood and paper to Plexiglas and other synthetics. Told that the library’s diorama probably dates from the late ’60s or early ’70s, he says his best guess is that it’s made from Plexiglas and plate-stock paper (a rigid material—somewhat like card stock—that holds up well when coated with water-based paint).
To forestall wear and tear, many models (including MLK’s) are covered by clear boxes—typically fiberglass, David Knoll says. Such a covering supposedly eliminates human tampering, not just from those who might be prone to pluck a tree or car as a souvenir but from perpetrators of such unintentional wear as coffee-mug rings.
But tonight, as I survey MLK’s fallen pedestrians and wayward vehicles, I speculate that nothing can prevent the chaos inflicted by human jostling.
Lofton says the library would consider a spruce-up if funding became available, but for now, other budget items take priority, and customers come first. According to DCPL spokesperson Richard Jackson, the library system is currently seeking to renovate or rebuild several branch facilities; MLK—the system’s flagship—may eventually be renovated, or razed, in favor of a new building on the site of the city’s old convention center.
“There are quite a few things that we need to do as a library system in order to upkeep the buildings that our patrons use on a daily or weekly basis,” Lofton says. “Frankly, I think that while this model is extremely important to us, we’re trying to dedicate our funds and energies to upkeeping and renovating our actual library.” —Joe Dempsey