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America’s libraries are essential now - and this beautifully renovated one gives us hope - The Washington Post

21.09.2020 - Publications

Ahead of its opening in the fall of 2020, Philip Kennicott, Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of The Washington Post gives us a beautiful insight of the newly renovated and transformed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in D.C. by Mecanoo and OTJ Architects. 

"In the fall, the modernist 1972 steel-and-glass box designed by Mies van der Rohe is set to reopen, radically transformed by the Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo. There will be relatively little fanfare when it comes online again (plans for a multiday grand reopening festival have been scuttled due to the coronavirus pandemic), but the prospect of its return to active duty offers a weary and beleaguered city something in short supply: hope.


The transformation is miraculous. Some early design proposals led to the nagging worry that the finished building might feel a bit like a Mies shell wrapped around a collection of trendy, soon-to-be-dated design follies. Architect Francine Houben, creative director of Mecanoo, which has developed a specialty in renovating and building libraries, clearly delineates her additions from Mies’s original: If it has curves, it’s Houben; if it’s a grid, it’s Mies. Yet many of most important changes feel as if they’ve been there all along. That includes stairwells lighted from above, stronger visual connections along the east-west axis of the structure, and the removal of an underground parking ramp to create space for a cafe.

“When I entered the building, it was dirty, dark, unpleasant, the ventilation was horrible, a kind of negative space,” Houben says by video call from the Netherlands.  But, she says, “I am an optimistic person, I could see it had really strong bones. The amazing thing about this Mies van der Rohe building is [that] it is not a lot of construction. The whole middle part could be an open space, and that is what I hope you experience. It is a very open, flat floor building, and that spaciousness of the building has a lot of potential.”

The essential thing about the original design was its promise to the city, its architectural echo of what King called the “promissory note,” the unpaid but still-owed bill that America owed its African American citizens after centuries of slavery, racism and oppression. Mies’s architecture may not have referenced that idea overtly — the building was only named for King in 1971, about two years after Mies died — but it dramatized the idea of promise and organic reformation within democratic society. Its open fields of glass at the ground level, which gave views to acres of book shelves, and its grid-like exterior, which suggested the basic X- and Y-axes of every possible thought, action and motion through space, said one thing very clearly: The Enlightenment isn’t dead."

Read full article here "America’s libraries are essential now — and this beautifully renovated one in Washington gives us hope"

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