Op-Ed: MLK Library is a civic hub (that also happens to have books)

By William Richards

It wasn’t much of a surprise when Mecanoo and OTJ Architects’ renovation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown D.C. received accolades after it reopened in 2020. The $211 million project was honored for myriad reasons—as an example of a sensitive intervention within an iconic envelope, as a creative solution to some internal circulation challenges, and as a successful modernization of the library typology. 

What I don’t think was talked about enough was the particular audacity of improving a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe design. It’s the kind of audacity that was only implied by most of these honors or talked about only obliquely by jurors, but it’s perhaps the most daunting thing you can ask an architecture firm (or two) to do: take on the Cartesian (and Miesian) orthodoxy like David took on Goliath. 

It’s no small task to say the least.

Sure, we’d all seen the renderings before and during the renovation, and, sure, they looked great, but what would it be like when the library opened? Would it feel like the old MLK Library felt? (This was an unwelcome prospect for some who’d long felt it was a tarnished masterpiece.) Or, would it feel different? (Again, an unwelcome prospect for others who were fond of its maladaptions.) 

Over the years, I’ve spent dozens of hours looking at the Washingtoniana Collection or looking through microfiche newspapers upstairs. The routine was the same each day: arrive and scoot through the lobby to the elevator—no time to waste. On occasion, though, I’d stop to watch what was going on in the lobby, and usually a lot was going on in what had become a kind of community center through the decades—unprogrammed, lightly monitored, a respite from summer’s sun or winter’s bite. It certainly didn’t feel like a library on the ground level and, in the north and south sections off the lobby, it seemed airy and bright in the same way that the Seagram Building lobby or Crown Hall both feel airy and bright. It felt special to be there.

Upstairs, though, was another story before the renovation. Cramped spaces created by weird, temporary walls and interminably dark corners made it feel unloved and decidedly unspecial. Of course, the darkness suited my microfiche reading just fine, but the entire scene offered nothing of the kinds of library experiences we crave—or demand—because of the likes of Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, or the public libraries designed by Carrère and Hastings in New York, or McKim, Mead, and White in Boston, or OMA in Seattle. In these places, you ascend from the street, and even transcend the mortal coil. In D.C., the movement from the street into the elevators and to a ratty rolling chair wasn’t as graceful.

The public doesn’t always expect a grand civic experience at the local tax office or even at the local city hall, but they do expect that public libraries should honor their purpose. Maybe we’re spoiled thanks to Andrew Carnegie’s legacy of funding more than 1,600 public libraries nationwide (not to mention another 100 academic ones), some of which have a grandeur all their own, such as the central Carnegie Library in D.C., designed by Ackerman and Ross that the MLK Library replaced. Nevertheless, the public library in America long ago transcended its status as an amenity and reached the vaunted status of a right—a right of access and a right to the dignity of learning. In Carnegie’s time, that meant books and periodicals. In our time, that means far more.

The new, 450,000 square-foot MLK Library is a thoroughly modern civic hub (that also happens to have books). It has a recording studio and a dance studio. It has an auditorium that seats nearly 300 people, and a fabrication lab that accommodates 3D printing, circuitry, and sewing. Galleries, gardens, and a green roof offer flexible spaces and helped the design team realize a LEED Silver certification. It’s the only library Mies ever designed and the only central library D.C. will ever need—for a while, anyway.

Last week, I promised to take my teenage daughter record shopping to mark the end of the school year, but I also convinced her to take a detour with me despite the words “library” and “let’s go.” We watched people doing library things. We played with the card catalog kiosks. We watched a small stage go up for what would probably be a book reading or lecture. We took some pictures. We watched people discover the new stairwell and delight in going up and running down. We basically just hung out, doing things that were unrelated to reading, and we enjoyed it. 

Is there any audacity in doing those things in a Mies building? Probably not. But, there is a sense that the library’s doors are always open, whether you’ve come to read or study or write (or attend a lecture, or even dance or sew). Reflecting on Mecanoo and OTJ’s renovation, which received an AIA Virginia Award of Honor in 2022, they’ve done more than modernize the city’s crown jewel. They’ve reestablished something that Washingtonians have come to expect and deserve, which is the dignity that only a public library can confer on the public. Dare I say they did it better than Mies could have? 

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

Perspectives on Justice: Erica Cochran Hameen on today’s students becoming tomorrow’s architects

Erica Cochran Hameen, Assoc. AIA, is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture, where she directs its equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, and co-directs the Center for Building Performance & Diagnostics. She holds a B.Arch. from Virginia Tech and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon in Building Performance & Diagnostics, and serves as the Track Chair for the Doctor of Design degree program. Hameen observes that this generation of architecture students arrive at their first year studios with a greater sense of agency than before. That’s good, says Hameen, because they’ll need it to make a difference as the next generation of architects, engineers, and designers. 

As someone who trained to be an architect and now helps designers consider their pathways, how would you characterize the professional landscape today?

In terms of students, they’re coming into the university with more agency than before. It’s exciting because we see students from multiple demographics who are expressing the intricacies and qualities of their demographics, and asking questions about how they can bring their experiences into design. We haven’t always seen that, and we see it today more and more. I see this with undergraduate and graduate students—they’re thinking about things from a global perspective. They’re asking how they can help people in the tropical global south—and these are students in Pittsburgh— who recognize that certain regions are disproportionately suffering from climate change. So, I see a generation of students who are thinking that way—about regions outside their own and regions beyond their experience.

What is the ethical imperative of architecture?

Making our buildings sustainable—and when I say that, I don’t mean just solar panels. We must think about it holistically. Sustainability deals with diversity, economics, and inclusivity. If we’re talking about Pittsburgh, African Americans here have the second highest energy burden rate in this country—which means you are spending a disproportionate amount of income on your appliance, taking buses and rides, cooling and heating your home. It is important to ask: Are you living in a place where your R-value is compromised because of your leaky roof? Are your children learning in a school where the air filters haven’t been cleaned lately and whose walls are crumbling? Do you live in a place where, 50 years ago, a highway was brought through the heart of the neighborhood? All of these things have an impact on our physiological health, our emotional health, and our mental health. 

Before the pandemic, we spent 90 percent of our time indoors. As we migrated to spending more and more time indoors because of the pandemic, it rose to 95 percent. For those without means, low-income Americans—it’s imperative that they have opportunities for quality design. As architects and designers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our buildings don’t leak, have the right R-values, are airtight, and are properly ventilated.

How can architecture co-opt the concepts and practices associated with justice in a way that is meaningful?

Changing our building codes and making certain things a requirement. If we want to right wrongs, that’s what we have to do. If you’re designing housing or schools, it should be a requirement that you’re awarded LEED Gold. All low-income housing should be zero-energy housing. These are people who don’t have a lot of money and disposable income, so why should they pay energy bills? That’s one way to right an economic wrong. Another thing we can do is make post-occupancy evaluations a requirement—as part of our design process. It’s not enough to finish the project. We have to return to it and make sure what we designed is working the way it should. Thermal, acoustical, spatial—all the dimensions. Architects’ fees should be tied to it—and they shouldn’t get the last paycheck until the building is verified to be working as designed. 

I teach a course on Indoor Environmental Quality, or IEQ, and in the second half of the course, students go and measure building environmental conditions—in disadvantaged communities. For one of the class projects, we went into a newly renovated school where we measured CO2 levels 400 percent higher than it’s supposed to be. The facility manager said, “Yes, in this classroom—the kids are very sleepy and the teacher complains about headaches,” and it was because that room had zero fresh air. Windows were sealed and nobody there knew had to adjust the mechanical system to receive fresh air. If there was a requirement for a post-occupancy evaluation and a provision for facility manager training on new systems contingent on the final design and construction payment, the poor air quality conditions could have been alleviated. 

What are some concepts that you think the next generation of architects will have to redefine or, in some cases, define for the first time?

On the technical side, the next generation will need to address where to put the vapor barrier—and this is me wearing my techie hat. The maps that were drawn for America in terms of climate and temperatures are different now. It used to be that we always put the vapor barrier on the warm side of the wall, but what do you do for walls constructed in a colder region with a climate that is now much warmer than 30 or 50 years ago?  The weather data files we were using in our energy modeling simulations were based on temperature ranges and climate data over a 25 year period almost 20 years ago, from 1991 to 2005—the weather files have had to change because our climate today includes noticeably warmer temperatures and precipitation variances. The next generation is going to have to identify what we’re going to do with our existing building stock—how do you retrofit them to prevent mold? I don’t know the answer, but I think my students will figure it out.

Also, I think the demographics of our cities are changing quickly and there are greater desires to recognize and express individual cultures. We must understand that different cultures have different needs—and if you have a client that’s of a different culture than yours, how do you identify and respect what’s important to them, and bring it into your design work? In terms of gender, I challenge my students on how they design bathrooms—why can’t there be gender neutral restrooms everywhere? Why can’t we have changing tables and spaces for nursing and breast pumping in every building? Quality design is also about empathy, and the more we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes—as people and as designers—the more successful we’ll be in redefining architecture.

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

Manoj Dalaya: Balancing Design and Practice

Manoj Dalaya, FAIA, founding principal and co-President of KGD Architecture, with offices in Washington, D.C., Arlington, Bangkok, and Boston, talks a lot about the concept of balance as the basis of good design and forging a design-based architectural practice. Dalaya, the 2021 President of AIA Northern Virginia, received AIA Virginia’s Award for Distinguished Achievement in 2018 in part because of his leadership in balancing the requirements of clients seeking security in their office buildings as well as healthy, open, and light-infused spaces for their employees. “It’s an interesting question — balance,” he says, “and if you go back to look at the role of the architect, it’s always to keep things in balance from the first conversation to the last punch list item.”

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Finding a New Commonwealth

On Nov. 30, 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron attended a remembrance ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery less than three weeks after Armistice Day and 104 years after the cease fire marking 40 million military and civilian deaths during World War I. The tomb behind the old Custis-Lee Mansion overlooking the cemetery holds the remains of four soldiers interred separately after highly choreographed selections over the last 10 decades, representing 19 candidates from both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam, 17 of which were exhumed from French soil or passed through France on their way to final resting place in Virginia.

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Pivoting to the Future

On Nov. 3, 2022, AIA Virginia announced architect Paul Battaglia, AIA, will be its next Executive Vice President bringing more than 25 years of practice, teaching, administration, and business development experience to lead the 2,500-member organization. Since 2011, Battaglia has been at Clark Nexsen, in recent years as a principal engaged in business development, where has specialized in education, research, outreach, and strategic partnerships. Battaglia has also held faculty positions at Hampton University, North Carolina State College of Design, VCU, and Virginia Tech, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture.

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Safer K-12 Design: School Should Feel – and Look – Like School

By Becky Brady, AIA, CDT, LEED AP BD+C

K-12 schools exist to engage students in active learning, providing them with the skills and knowledge for successful futures. Unquestionably, these environments should also be safe and welcoming. Today’s students grapple with concerns including bullying, fights, the risk of school shootings, natural disasters, and mental health of students and teachers, leading to the need for innovative solutions to make learning spaces open and inclusive while also secure.

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