Mies Renovation Wins US Building of the Year 2021

John Hill
1. February 2022
Photo: Robert Benson

Writing in 2012 in their updated critical biography of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Mies biographer Franz Schulze and architect Edward Windhorst describe the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library as "little loved by patrons and critics" and "currently under threat of replacement." It was Mies's only public library and his only building in Washington, DC, though he would not see it completed, having died in 1969 in Chicago. The budget was low, as Schulze and Windhorst point out, resulting in deep and "unrelenting" floor plates, "no special spaces or interior sequences," and "no sense of quality," especially compared to other Mies buildings. Though far from a masterpiece, they considered it "structurally sound and readily adaptable," endorsing a "sensitive revitalization."

The transparency of the ground floor — a signature of Mies's architecture — remains intact in the renovation. (Photo: Robert Benson)

The following year, in 2013, the path to revitalization began, with the District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) launching an international architectural competition to reimagine the library that was designed by Mies and named for civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (The latter happened when DC residents successfully organized a letter-writing campaign to name the District's new central library after King following his assassination in 1968.) In February 2014, the Dutch firm Mecanoo and DC's Martinez+Johnson, which subsequently merged with OTJ Architects, won the invited competition. 

Ever since their design of the grass-covered library at Delft University of Technology was completed in 1997, Mecanoo has been a go-to firm for libraries. They have realized a number of new buildings for libraries, such as the Library of Birmingham (2013) and Tainan Public Library (2021), but just as many renovations appear to be occupying their time as of late, as with the the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, a large branch of the New York Public Library that opened last year, and the library's historic research building across the street. Needless to say, Mecanoo and OTJ were an excellent choice for renovating DC's central library in a way that would respect the existing building but make it more functional — and beautiful — as a 21st-century library.

The new stairs flank the main entrance. (Photo: Robert Benson)

Following three years of construction, the rejuvenated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library opened to the public in September 2020 — the transformation was described as "miraculous" by a local critic ahead of its opening — and in February 2021 we featured it as a US Building of the Week between other adaptive reuse and renovation projects. From the exterior the library is still unmistakably Mies, with its curtain wall with dark glass and frames, expressed I-beam mullions, and recessed ground floor; even a new pavilion on the roof is set back so as to not be visible from the street. New features on the inside, including two wood-lined stairs and a 291-seat auditorium at the top of the building, are fluid foils to Mies's grid-based, orthogonal architecture. Artwork in the lobby and grand reading room, formerly a single-height space, add color to the interior spaces while also celebrating the life of Dr. King.

The curving lines of the stairs clearly signal that they are new elements within the Mies library. (Photo: Trent Bell)

Francine Houben, principal, founding partner, and creative director of Mecanoo, illuminates the goals of their design: "The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library reconciles the Mies building, the values of Martin Luther King, and what the library of the future must be. We have made the MLKL more organic, more transparent and more open, both physically and in how it reaches out to Washington, DC. Like never before, this great library extends its welcome to all communities, across all ages and backgrounds, and gives them the resources to build better lives."

The Grand Reading Room features a new installation by Xenobia Bailey. (Photo: Robert Benson)

Upon hearing the news that readers voted the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library above the dozens of other Buildings of the Week, Mecanoo sent us a brief message: "We are very happy with such recognition from the World-Architects readers. Adaptive reuse and transformation is a field within architecture that is getting more attention and recognition. It is not just about restoration or renovation; it’s about bringing new life into buildings that once served a purpose and need to be transformed in order to serve their communities. Therefore we must be prepared for (un)predictable change."

Look for a longer feature on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library — the US Building of the Year 2021 — at a later date.

The auditorium lobby, conference room, and event center open to a new sky garden atop the library. (Photo: Robert Benson)

The US Building of the Year poll on American-Architects was open during the month of January and asked visitors to the website to pick their favorite building from the 44 Buildings of the Week featured in 2021. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library won with approximately 20% of the votes. The four runners-up, all with double-digit percentages of the votes, are listed below, with links to the respective Buildings of the Week.

Second Place (14% of votes): Ozark Natural Foods Co-Op, Fayetteville (AR) by modus studio. (Photo: Timothy Hursley)
Third Place (12.8% of votes): Moynihan Train Hall, New York (NY) by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. (Photo: Lucas Blair Simpson © SOM)
Fourth Place (12.3% of the votes): Columbia City Abbey Apartments, Seattle (WA) by Allied 8. (Photo: Rafael Soldi)
Fifth Place (10.2% of the votes): Optimist Hall, Charlotte (NC) by Square Feet Studio and Perkins&Will (Photo: Keith Isaacs Photography)
Congratulations to the winner and runners-up, and thanks to you, our readers, for voting!
Previous US Building of the Year winners on American-Architects:

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