(Mies’ Chicago Federal Plaza, with Alexander Calder’s Flamingo sculpture. A note about the lack of people in the plaza – this photo was taken with a temperature of about -5 degrees and a wind chill well below that. Author’s photo)
Today, Lydia DePillis has a guest post from Kriston Capps offering a well-put defense of DC’s oft-maligned MLK Library, the sole work of Mies van der Rhoe in the city. DePillis recently wrote about DCPL’s building boom and the modern taste it has. Capps defends Mies’ design and chalks up the library’s deficiencies to poor maintenance of the building, but also falling victim to the larger social ills that often make the location undesirable.
But more than a renovation, even, the MLK Library needs city serves downtown to step up. It will never be an inviting place like Shaw or Tenleytown until the city does something to serve D.C.’s homeless population downtown. The library serves as a de facto shelter and has since before Armstrong v. District of Columbia Public Library. Mayor Williams was kidding himself to say that it was a lack of WiFi, and not an abundance of homeless men, keeping families away.
Design matters – but it can only do so much.
The MLK Library has always reminded me of the uniquely frustrating promise of the District. Here is the start of this soaring Mies skyscraper that stops before it starts, well short of the Seagram Building in New York or 860–880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. We get a Mies, but a Mies cut off at its knees. It’s a perfect architectural metaphor for the almost-urbanism that characterizes life in Washington.
Mies isn’t all skyscrapers, of course. I’ve visited other low-slung libraries of his (on Chicago’s IIT campus) that work well. I’d also argue that Mies’ other works do work well in “almost-urbanism” of places like Detroit’s Lafayette Park, or when given sufficient space to contrast against the predominant urban fabric as the Seagram Building or Chicago’s Federal Plaza do. The MLK Library instead conforms to the city’s plan and fabric, with only the slight jog in G Street NW as it skirts the Portrait Gallery offering a chance to see the building from a distance.
It’s certainly not Mies’ best work, but the library isn’t the negative many make it out to be. With some thoughtful renovations to care for the original design, it has potential to be a great public space once again – insofar as design alone can tackle the human challenges of the library’s primary users.