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May 31, 2010 MLK Library

Post’s Kennicott Takes a New Look at Mies’s MLK Library

MLK Library in DC by Mies van der Rohe

The black I-beams of Mies's MLK library in D.C.

If you were away for the weekend, check out Phillip Kennicott’s piece re-examaning  Mies van der Rohe’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and its new neighbor that will rise on the adjacent site of the former First Congregational United Church of Christ.

“All this temporarily open space also serves to reveal a building that has long been hidden in plain sight: the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the 1972 black box designed by the firm of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe,” Kennicott writes. “The building, finished after the death of the great modernist architect, has always been problematic, an austere and alien presence in a city temperamentally allergic to anything that isn’t classical, brick or bland. For years it has been in desperate need of renovation. But for now, seen across the open pit, without the distraction of the church that used to sit next to it, the library looks shockingly good. The construction site offers a temporary gift, a chance to see the library in its full glory, with enough perspective and distance to contemplate its stern geometrical form. Suddenly this glass-and-metal box feels new and powerful, as if all it needed was a little air, a little breathing room.”

It’s good to see the much derided mid-century modern building get a fresh look amid the surrounding redevelopment of the city.

Martin Luther King library by Mies van der Rohe.

The library was designated a historic landmark in 2007.

0 comments Post a Comment

  1. Thayer-D — June 1, 2010 @ 11:07 am         Reply

    While I normally enjoy Mr. Kennicott’s perspectives, this latest effort was a huge dissapointment. It peddles in the most overused cliches of Washington DC and modernism, and gives nothing new to the uninitiated.
    He begins by stating DC is “a city temperamentally allergic to anything that isn’t classical, brick, or bland”. I guess he’s not aquainted with the canyons of glass modernism that make our CBD undistinguishable from most mid-size cities in the US. The playfull and wildly varied rowhouse architecture from the Civil War to WWI don’t seem to register on his radar either. He seems to have missed the Newseum alltogether.

    Then, the analysis of the MLK Library seems to come straight out of a How-to-Bauhaus manual. If the library needs space to be appreciated, blame the “great” Mies for once again flipping off the context in favor of his genious vision. And the box, or should we say “stern geometrical form” is a one size fits all solution the modernists shoved any function in, to promote their totalitarian arethetic on any sap willing to buy into their warpped world view. Functionalism, not so much. As for decoration, I guess decoration is ok, as long as it’s steel beams, “expressing” structure.

    Then the classic modernist elitism of dismissing the users by dissing the librarian who is clearly “not an aesthete” for making the unforgivable sin of demanding the building actually function for what it was designed to. “Cooper is looking to find a balance between the building’s rigorous architectural demands and it’s evolving purpose as a library”. Funny how Mies’s concept of “universal space” can’t handle “provisional offices that have been built along the southwest windows of the ground floor, in utter and reckless disregard for the clarity of Mies’s design”. The modernists’ clarity never allowed for the humanity they where proportidly designed to house from a simple library to whole cities (see Brasillia).

    Modernism has long been rejected by the public and shown to be intellectually bankrupt, yet those too invested to look at it with trully critical eyes keep justifying its greatest failures almost as a way to retain the intellectual capital they so assiduously invested in it. I have come to enjoy Mr. Kennicott’s perspectives, but this article is a fawning tribute to a building long despised by most all who have had to work in and patronize.

    While it’s easy to criticize, I feel the need to say something consructive. The MLK should definatley be preserves as the important architectural monument is surely is, but maybe a sculpture museum might be more appropriate. It’s no coincidence that so many neo-modernists’ favorite building type to design is museums. Clean open spaces unencumbered by the complexities of everyday life, detached from their context, it’s all about building as sculpture.

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