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Shaw library, design icon? (Darrow Montgomery)

D.C. Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper’s office, on the fourth floor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, is in some ways a reminder of failure: It’s too big, and a set of fraying modernist chairs, original to the 1973 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe building, have grown too delicate to sit on. Cooper, a gray-haired grandmother with red glasses and clogs, is dwarfed by her own vast conference table.

Although Cooper was stifled in her ambition to replace a library deemed “functionally obsolete”—as she was in her last gig at the Brooklyn Public Library, where a proposed five-story showpiece never raised the $85 million it would have cost—she’s already built four new branch libraries, on top of several historic renovations and mixed-use facilities, with three more to be completed in this year. Together, they represent a significant chunk of the exciting modernist architecture being done in the District, which has long had a reputation for—to put it delicately—restraint.

Why is that notable? New City Administrator Allen Lew, after all, rebuilt a slew of falling-apart schools under then–Mayor Adrian Fenty, vastly improving the architecture at many and gracefully restoring historic buildings.

The difference is users. Schoolchildren are a captive audience, who have to go to school whether they like the building or not. Libraries, on the other hand, are optional. In an era when more and more of their traditional functions can be accomplished with a computer and a wireless connection, libraries have to work to draw people in.

“My hunch is,” Cooper says, “that you would be more willing to go in and see what’s different when it’s a glorious building like Shaw.”

That’s what the library board of trustees recognized in 2006, when they scrapped bland, cookie-cutter designs for a batch of new libraries—“There would have been a lot of disappointment if those plans had gone forward,” notes the board’s president, John Hill—and decided to go for something more ambitious. With a couple hundred million dollars to play with, Cooper toured the world for inspiration, and settled on a roster of fashionable and unabashedly modern designers who had done little, if any, work in the District before. (In the process, Cooper thinks, she found the recession’s silver lining: Some architects may have been more eager to take on the library projects because work elsewhere was hard to come by).

She didn’t skimp on costs: The Anacostia library cost $445 per square foot, according to Library Journal. That’s considerably more than the national average for libraries built in the last five years, which is a little more than $300 per square foot. (The Tenley-Friendship branch, meanwhile, was even more expensive; it cost $2.9 million just to design, D.C. officials say. See cost breakdowns here.)

But the result is a striking set of buildings that sit like aliens in their neighborhoods, thoroughly unlike their surroundings—and intentionally so. “She wanted modern, she wanted bright, she wanted not the status quo, something a little edgy, in that she was pushing for something new and noteworthy,” says Christiane DeJong, part of the Davis Brody Bond Aedas team responsible for the Benning branch and award-winning Shaw library. “She wanted it to be known that these buildings belonged to the public.”

And now, the Ginnie Cooper generation is coming to a close. She probably won’t get a chance from Mayor Vince Gray’s cash-strapped administration to replace or even renovate the rest of the system. Still, in only five years, Cooper forcibly injected not just the libraries, but the entire city, with the biggest shot of popular modernism it’s ever seen, and likely ever will.

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One big reason Cooper’s libraries are opening to such excitement is because the buildings they replaced were so abysmal.

D.C.’s library buildings have come in three basic forms: The classical, Andrew Carnegie-funded collection built in the 1920s and 1930s, which includes Georgetown, Mount Pleasant, Takoma Park, and Southeast Petworth. A set of sensibly squat brick buildings designed in the 1950s through the D.C. Public Works Program—from Woodridge to Cleveland Park to Washington Highlands—are barely distinguishable from each other. Then there was the bunker generation, built during the city’s decline and born out of a sense that the District didn’t deserve anything better (Shepherd Park and Lamond-Riggs are some of the last remaining examples).

Some designs were so bad that federal planning authorities tried to save D.C. from itself. In the early 1960s, the Commission on Fine Arts rejected designs for the new Benning Library as inadequate, but city officials (then appointed by federal authorities) built it anyway, saying policy required “the strictest economy and simplicity in construction.” The Watha T. Daniel Library plan, drawn up after the 1968 riots that devastated Shaw, was so prison-like that the National Capital Planning Commission directed the city to open it up with larger windows, bigger setbacks, and arcades. Again, the city rejected the advice and plowed forward, even when the feds attempted to get an injunction to stop it.

(And how did the MLK Library end up so unloved? Perhaps because city and federal authorities were so thrilled to get someone with Mies’ reputation, even in the twilight of his career, that design quality was simply assumed—the Commission on Fine Arts rubber-stamped the plans without requiring the usual presentation.)

Skip ahead to 2010. The new Cooper buildings reflect not only evolving design standards, but a transformed idea of how libraries ought to function.

“[The old libraries] were protecting something of great value,” says Davis Brody Bond Aedas’ Peter Cook. “A library often had to retrieve those books for you… Today’s libraries are very different institutions. You’d be hard pressed anymore to find librarians who go, ‘Sshhh.’”

To understand what he means, spend a few minutes working at one of the tables against the windows of the Anacostia library. Instead of entering a bomb shelter, you feel like you haven’t even left the neighborhood, since it’s visible all around you. Instead of fluorescent bulbs flickering from oppressively low ceilings, the room is flooded with natural light; you always know what time of day it is. Computers are full. New rules even allow eating in some buildings, and the stacks feel more like a recreation center than a repository of sacred knowledge—the Deanwood library is, in fact, built into a rec center, for easy access between swimming lessons and football practice. They’re even welcoming from blocks away: The Shaw library shines like a beacon to those approaching from Rhode Island Avenue and 7th Street NW, while the Anacostia library’s bright green awning extends like a front porch, inviting visitors in.

Not everyone loves the Ginnie Cooper style of library construction. Neighborhoods waged wars over whether Tenley-Friendship and Benning should be mixed-use. Local residents protested the globular concept for the Washington Highlands library, saying it made them feel like they were in an aquarium. Putting design aside, Robin Diener, who heads up the Ralph Nader-founded watchdog group D.C. Library Renaissance, thinks that big pot of money should have been spread out between all the libraries, not frittered away on fancy architects. People just want their libraries to be clean, safe, have sufficient computers, and most importantly, stay open, she says—and since Cooper has also been laying off staff and cutting hours, Diener would seem to have a point.

It’s true, the new libraries didn’t come cheap. Could the District have paid too much? If you don’t think cutting edge design is important, then it would be difficult to say no.

But the kind of architecture that reinvests neighborhoods with a sense of pride and erases the mistakes of the past is important, even if that means not every neighborhood gets something new. If you start looking at statistics already being collected on the new buildings—the rate of new card registrations in the old libraries vs. the new ones, or overall number of items checked out—you get much better bang for your buck.

The Shaw building, for example, has drawn so many children that librarian Eric Riley has had to schedule more storytimes and devote more rooms to kids than planned. If there’s one more thing he could have, he says, it would be a room for teens to have all to themselves.

“It’s just way, way crazy to see,” Riley says. “The fact that we’re getting so much use, that speaks more than anything else.”

Anacostia from the inside. (Lydia DePillis)