One of the raging historic preservation controversies here in Washington revolves around our central library, the MLK library downtown. Designed and constructed in 1972, the building is DC’s only Mies van der Rohe. The city has threatened to demolish the structure, or to move the library elsewhere, perhaps making way for demolition. And the building itself needs renovation – it has seen a fair amount of deferred maintenance, and very high levels of wear and tear over the years. It is a four story construction, with steel frame, steel and glass curtainwall, and blond brick infill – the classic Mies palette. Amy and I visited there yesterday, my first time to enter, look around, and assess. It seems to me that there are two categories of problems here.
First are the library problems. The library system here is not in good shape. This is a small city of only about 560,000 residents, but we are home to some of the greatest libraries on the planet. The DCPL is not one of those, not by a wide margin. There are issues of access to materials, and the branches have wildly varied collections, some pretty good and most quite meager. Our beloved NE branch, across the street from us here on the Hill, is a wonderful resource, but there’s not much in the way of books. The only place where you can find most current publications, or much in the way of reference or research materials, is downtown, at MLK. The system needs overhauling, access to more capital, some real focus on collections, and a remodeling of policies related to the distribution of materials.
Then there are the architecture problems. The MLK library, the Mies building, is a truly horrible place for books, or readers. It is cold, worn, too small, noisy. It’s main hall looks like nothing so much as a warehouse or factory. It is a nasty place to go, and lots of people do go, must go, to learn, read, study, research, and enjoy programs of a wide variety. Mies did a bunch of libraries, and most of them that I have visited are not very nice places for books and readers. (Ironically, in the push to save the building you can find websites that trumpet MLK as the only Mies library in the world. Tsk, Tsk. Not true).
So the best plan would be for the city to build a new and inviting central library, make it and the whole system a model for the nation, and then turn the Mies building to a better use. I suppose we should save it, but it certainly should not be a library.
Just my two cents worth today.