The Plan to Make DC's Central Library a Home for More Than Just Books

Libraries used to be places for doing bookish things. It's not that simple anymore. Washington DC just announced the winning proposal for renovating its historic central library. The winner? An ambitious plan to turn the building into a place where ideas are born—and things actually made.

In a city full of monuments and august government buildings, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library is a rare example of modernism. Originally completed in 1972, the building was the last built work of the famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—and it's a prime example of Mies' style: A classically proportioned, primarily horizontal structure that's built up from identical 30-foot by 30-foot design modules.

The Plan to Make DC's Central Library a Home for More Than Just Books

Even before the renovation plans, the library started moving towards the future. Last year, the library ripped out the boring old business library and replaced it with a "Digital Commons" with 60 PCs, 16 iMacs, an Espresso Book Machine, a 3D printer, and importantly, seating for 140 people to show up and plug in their own computers.

It was a first step towards institutionally recognizing what librarians and casual observers have known for a long time: That the library isn't a place where people come to look at books anymore. In fact, it's not a place where people come to do any single one thing. It's a place where people come to do lots of things, from kids killing time in a safe place before dinner to people using public computers to find jobs to college students and professionals who hole up in a quite space to get some work done.

In short, the library's 4o-year-old design might be a historical landmark, but it also needs a drastic overhaul, with services and facilities to serve a broader community role than the one it was originally designed for. In other words, the thing needs to be completely gutted, and the only bits that'll be saved are what

The winning proposal to renovate the library, a joint pitch from Dutch firm Mecanoo Architecten and DC's own Martinez+Johnson Architecture, puts it this way: The library needs an overhaul from monofunctional to multifunctional, a place that can house everything from educational spaces to meeting rooms to, yes, space for books. (Indeed, the library has the largest circulating collection of any in the system.)

The Plan to Make DC's Central Library a Home for More Than Just Books

Inside Mies' building, the architects propose that each floor should have its own purpose. The lower-level ground floor will house the impressively named "Center for innovation and prototyping," a flexible space with industrial concrete floors, movable walls, and space for workshops and lectures. At street level, the "City Marketplace" floor will showcase featured resources, a performance area, a cafe and (!) a bookstore—it's the kind of space that people casually move in and out of as part of regular downtown life.

The second floor is devoted entirely to an educational center, giving this crucial and under-appreciated facet of library life its own home. Above the the educational floor, the architects propose a reading floor, followed by a history floor housing special collections and exhibition space, and finally, at the top, a new roof deck and garden space.

Structurally, the building will be retrofitted, replacing all non-structural walls with glass or eliminating them entirely to give the building better natural light.

The Plan to Make DC's Central Library a Home for More Than Just Books

One of the more controversial aspects of the plan, though, is the fact that it will turn the building into a mixed private-public space, as groups have been fighting against any private involvement at all, even if some kind of private partnership seems to be a good compromise. As WAMU points out, administrators have long complained that the huge building is expensive and complicated to maintain. In one of the optional portions of the Mecanoo with Martinez+Johnson proposal, a private space, most likely for housing, would be built above the squat Mies structure.

But any controversy over the public-private divide might soon be quelled—by the need for funding. So far, Washington DC Mayor Vincent Gray has only committed $103 million of district funding for the project, which falls far short of budget estimates running as high as $250 million.

It's also important to note that the winning proposal is nothing more than a concept at this point. The winning firm was selected because the concept illustrated that they best understand the needs of the community and the library, but the fine details still need to be negotiated and will definitely change. Let's hope they can get the ambitious project done. [Scribd and DC Public Library via WAMU and DCist]