The proposal from Patkau Architects and Ayers Saint Gross
The proposal from Patkau Architects and Ayers Saint Gross

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In a presentation at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on Saturday, architects and library officials walked through three proposals to redesign and transform the city’s central library. Leading architects from each of the three teams—the Dutch firm Mecanoo and D.C. firm Martinez+Johnson Architecture, the Canadian firm Patkau Architects and D.C. firm Ayers Saint Gross, and the District’s own Freelon Group and international firm Studios Architecture—gave talks on their designs. For those of us who have followed the MLK Library debate since Mayor Anthony Williams offered to paint the building white and Mayor Adrian Fenty mulled over selling it to Bloomingdale’s, it was gratifying to see leaders and residents hashing out serious questions about architecture, civic space, and the future of D.C. libraries.

The architects explained the philosophies that guided their designs (which can be seen at the library in a series of renderings and three-dimensional models). Each team was asked to design an interior renovation and an interior renovation that also came with a residential or mixed-use addition. The teams pitched wildly divergent futures for the MLK Library. Mecanoo would put a diagonal addition and public gardens on top of the library. The Freelon Group envisions a winding interior walkway that extends through the building and into and over a residential addition. Patkau’s addition would be the least visible from the street, with greater emphasis on an enclosed atrium inside the building. Members of the advisory committee that will help to make the decision asked hard questions about feasibility and programming. Does the library need a marketplace in the grand lobby, for example?

One question from the audience stuck with me. It came during the second presentation, when designers from Patkau Architects were explaining features of the firm’s design. How will the design honor Martin Luther King Jr.? The question raises a larger question: What role should diversity play in picking a team to redesign the MLK Memorial Library?

The first question fell to Patricia Patkau, one of the firm’s founders and a highly decorated architect (she is a member of the Order of Canada). After praising King and his many accomplishments, she declined to pander. “I’m not sure architecture can do that,” she said. Her answer was honest, if not firm—she seemed to arrive at it as she spoke, as if she had neither expected nor prepared to answer questions about Martin Luther King Jr. Which makes perfect sense. Can people working from Vancouver possibly know his life as well as people living in Washington, D.C.?

Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson Architectures proposals proposal

Patkau’s presentation came second in the lineup, after the premiere presentation led by Mecanoo’s Francine Houben. I would expect an architect from Delft in South Holland to know even less about MLK’s biography than an architect from British Columbia. But Houben’s presentation was peppered through with language drawn from King’s speeches (delivered in her strong Dutch accent). Her presentation didn’t preempt the question, though. None of the design features of Mecanoo’s proposal appears to anticipate or reflect King’s vision of charity, peace, and universal equality (except insofar as any library enshrines those values).

Phil Freelon, on the other hand, appeared ready for the question. As he gave his presentation, he made two points about his work that seemed to bear in mind the question that Patkau ducked.

To kick off his presentation, Freelon introduced his team, noting its diversity. There are at least two black designers working for his team (Freelon included). I can’t say with any certainty that there are no African-American architects on the Patkau or Mecanoo teams, but I didn’t notice any black people among the presenters for those groups. (Very few African-Americans work in the design industry. Fewer than 2 percent of the 105,000 licensed architects in the U.S. are African-American, according to the National Association of Minority Architects.)

He went on to say that his vision for MLK the library reflected MLK the man. “Dr. King worked within very strict boundaries to achieve his goals, but he never violated the rules,” Freelon said. If I understood him correctly, he seemed to be saying that the process of renovating a building with historic landmark status required him to work within a certain framework, but that he would challenge that framework with a big, bold (and permissible) gesture.

With due respect to Freelon, I think Patkau won this round. Certainly no one familiar with the MLK Memorial Library, whether a critic or an admirer, would say that the design by Mies van der Rohe reflects or even considers Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work. (I do not know whether Mies was brought on to design the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library or if he was brought on to design a central library that was later named, but it hardly matters. The only legacy a Mies building would ever honor is that of Mies, as a colleague put it after the library event.) [UPDATE, 2:36 p.m.: Here’s the answer to that question. Ground broke at 9th and G Streets NW in 1968, Mies died in 1969, and the library was dedicated to MLK in 1971.]

One generous reading of Patkau’s shaky answer: No architect in the room could bend the Mies building enough to honor Martin Luther King. The plainer reading is also reasonable—it is not within the scope of architecture to match the legacy of a figure like MLK—but I don’t know if that’s what Patkau meant. (Think of Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Think of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial here in D.C. Design can be sensitive and marvelous. Mies is marvelous, but he is anti-sensitive.)

We know what the opposite of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy looks like in built form: an MLK Memorial Library hobbled by decades of neglect and deferred maintenance. For years, the library languished as city services declined. As D.C.’s urban core fell into disrepair, the result of riots and the economic assault on blacks of the 1960s, our central library was forgotten. It is a testament to the strength and integrity of Mies’ building that it is redeemable today.

The Studios Architecture and Freelon Group proposal

I am taken by Freelon’s soft point about his team’s diversity. It needs to register as a factor in the decision about recasting D.C.’s central library. Across town, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial statue was made with seemingly just one factor in mind—cost—and the result is a Maoist-looking statue that misinterprets the man. While I don’t think Freelon’s design scheme does MLK the man any more favors than Mecanoo or Patkau’s concepts, a diverse team will bring important ideas to bear on a project that cannot be divorced from the racial history of the city—no matter how imperious Mies’ design strives to be.

No doubt, diversity cannot be the only factor in this contest. The incredible costs of staging construction downtown, plus the soaring costs of steel, lead me to think that Freelon’s addition will be almost impossible to execute at budget, at least as his team has outlined it so far. Patkau’s reputation for library design and for modernist renovation projects cannot be outshined by anyone else in the competition. Mecanoo’s interior renovation seems like the most easily executable concept of all three. (None of the designs as the teams suggested them should be the final design—they are all flawed in different ways.)

Given former D.C. chief librarian Ginnie Cooper’s role as chair in this competition, the Freelon Group could have the advantage, since she commissioned Freelon to design the Anacostia and Tenley Friendship libraries and asked the Freelon Group for an MLK Library feasibility study in 2012. (Sidebar question: Why isn’t the new DCPL chief librarian Richard Reyes-Gavilan involved in this competition? After all, he will be seeing through its execution.)

At the public hearing, where about 250 people gathered to hear presentations, it appeared to me that the Freelon Group was the crowd favorite as well. Freelon didn’t overstate his case that diversity distinguished his firm from the others. But the point seemed to draw appreciative nods from the crowd. On that particular point, my head was one of those nodding.