One of the most important architects of the 20th century, love him or hate him, was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). Mies built hugely influential structures in cities like Barcelona, Chicago, and New York which came to define modern architecture around the world. Yet during his very long career, he only designed one project here in Washington: the Martin Luther King Public Library, located in downtown DC. Now as the city calls for architects to help expand and re-design the building, it might be a good time to reflect on whether something that is unremarkable needs to be preserved, simply because of who might have been associated with it.
As much as DC likes to claim that the MLK Library is significant because it was designed by Mies, said factor is the only distinguishing feature of the building itself. There is simply nothing special about this blocky structure, other than its association with this particular architect. It is the same sort of mechanical, rusty, uninspiring space that was copied over and over again, and could just as easily be a hospital, or a field office of the Social Security Administration, as a public library.
While the exterior of the building is the usual mix of painted steel, smoky glass, and aggregate concrete, all leaking and crumbling away, the interior is just as boring and unremarkable. Strips of fluorescent lighting run across the ceiling from one side to the other, leading the eye to feast upon either a blank wall, or the street outside, which you suddenly find yourself wishing to go back out to. Throw in a few copies of Mies’ 1929 Barcelona chairs in the waiting area, and presto – instant architecture!
One of the problems with the school of thought which Mies helped develop, and which put such an indelible stamp on the landscape of cities around the world, is that it allows for little or nothing in the way of regionalism. The goal of international uniformity at the expense of local cultural expression means that one could simply pick up this rather blah building in DC, plop it down in the middle of a city thousands of miles away, say Hamburg or Dehli, and it would not matter. This mechanistic quality is a natural follow-on from the ideas of Mies’ contemporaries Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, particularly as exemplified in the latter’s famous characterization of the home as “a machine for living”. In fact, such thought processes have now become an ingrained way of looking at the world, not only in architecture but in government’s view of its citizens, to the extent that no one dares to question it, or indeed why we should allow ourselves, our homes, or the public buildings which we pay for to be treated as such in the first place.
By contrast, a short distance away from today’s MLK library is the smaller, former central public library. It was built at the turn of the previous century in the then-fashionable Beaux-Arts style, thanks to an enormous gift from industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and opened to the public in 1903. It served as the city’s largest reading room until 1970, when the MLK Library was opened, and today houses the city’s historical society.
The old library is an elegant structure, with sweeping marble staircases and symmetrical wings. It could have been expanded upon almost infinitely as the collection grew, through the use of sensitive additions. It also fits within the general classical architecture that defines not only most of the major buildings and monuments of Washington, but also the very rational, 18th century layout of the city itself, situated in a large square where a number of important streets and avenues all meet.
Now of course, instead of being prominently placed, the city library is housed inside a boring building on a random street corner, which one could easily walk right past and be forgiven for ignoring, thinking it was just another ho-hum office block. There are no plans to tear it down, and thus, whatever changes may be made, this public library will look pretty much just as soul-suckingly dull as the old one. It will not become any the handsomer for all the alterations it is about to physically undergo, thanks to the desire to preserve and celebrate something which ought to have been bulldozed years ago.
To appreciate the work of an artist, one does not need to like everything that they made. Raphael may be my favorite painter of the Italian High Renaissance, and his was a towering talent indeed. Yet in all frankness, some of his later pictures in particular are decidedly messy, fussy, and unattractive. Over time he may have become more accomplished as a dramatist and decorator, but in some cases he had begun to lose the sense of quiet emotion that made his earlier work so powerful, in the rush to get out commissioned pieces to clients.
Similarly, I love Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion of 1929, with its combination of light, openness, and calm, It is a clean, but inviting space, which invites the visitor to sit and relax. It had a tremendous impact on the history of architecture, and we would be lucky to have something like it here in the Nation’s capital.
Yet DC’s lone claim to Mies fame strikes me as being little more than a derivative version of far superior work which he created elsewhere. For here we see little more than the middling effort of a very famous and very busy man, who left to underlings the job of bringing his ideas into reality. In the end, it is a pity that public funds need to be expended on preserving and expanding upon a structure that has really nothing much at all to commend it.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library