DC Libraries and the Need for Visual Literacy

Books are under attack.  In a world of Internet access and e-readers, the pages that live between tangible covers have never been more threatened.  So it’s more important than ever that our libraries offer more than shelves.  Like other good civic architecture, libraries must be fundamental pillars of society. Further, they must encourage knowledge and learning, shelter our dreams and ambitions, and help us find and express community spirit.

In Washington, D.C., the debate over the future of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library should focus on restoring those unique purposes to the heart of America’s capital.  Instead, it has descended into an aimless conversation about the merits of style and one of the poorest examples of a noted architect’s otherwise significant legacy.

Since the advent of Modernism, Washington, D.C. is widely known as the place where  renowned architects come to do their most mediocre work. The MLK library is a prime example.  Completed after the death of its architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the building now poses seemingly endless questions.  Should it be restored?  How do we combat the spiraling costs of keeping such a building alive?  Would additional floors help?  Should it just be sold and replaced?

But here’s a better question:  Is Washington so starved for decent Modern architecture that we heap praise on banal, mundane and downright insipid attempts to modernize the architectural landscape?  From the library system’s leadership to the Office of Planning and myriad agency reviews, Modernism for Modernism’s sake is pushed upon our neighborhoods.  And a recently bred phobia of being labeled traditional most often results in weak, anti-urbanist, pedestrian-hostile, temporary-looking—more succinctly anti-humanist—designs.

The Anacostia, Watha T. Daniel/Shaw, Dorothy I. Height/Benning, and Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Libraries were designed—two each—by two award-winning, out-of-town firms.  They have all been lavished with accolades by architectural paparazzi and the blogosphere. And in this contrarian’s view, they all suffer from similar failings.  Trendy and contemporary, they are; timeless they are not.  LEED certified, some; enduring for generations, questionable.  Iconic in the short-term, maybe; architecturally pleasing and destined to become community landmarks, highly unlikely—and certainly not compared to our many historic branch libraries.

Take the Tenley-Friendship Library, which I see at least twice daily in my commute. It’s won justifiable praise for its LEED Gold certification.  But DC’s own Library Building Program stipulates that future buildings be “a destination, an anchor, a place for learning and meeting that is welcoming and comfortable for the whole community.”  On that scale, once the newness wears off, the Tenley-Friendship Library will be judged a monumental failure.  I doubt it will last even as long as the Mid-Century Modern building it replaced.

Libraries should separate themselves from their background to become civic monumental structures.  Massing, angle, and the degree of setback from the street should all speak to this.  Entries should say, “Enter here.  I am a public building.”  And look no farther for a barometer of success than the neighborhood coffee shops, where you may see far more people lingering outside.

In the case of Tenley-Friendship, the streetscape and landscape is outright antagonistic to pedestrians. And its design is a one-trick dog—a glass box with stacks of books.  Contrary to the permanence of the books it is meant to safeguard, the design materials seem trendy and temporary. The rust-orange colored, perforated metal fins that ornament the exterior are all vertical, all on the same angle, and all sticking up higher than the building, as if trying to alter perception about the building’s actual size. The western end of the Albemarle Street side is clad in similarly colored vertical metal siding, already dented and oil-canning.  Even the building’s sustainable aspect is flawed, because a building’s sides should be designed differently to react to solar exposures.  Lastly, surrounding stacks of books with a glass volume isn’t at all good for books, which should never be exposed to that much light.

Maybe the design fell victim to the DC Library’s System’s own call, not just for “architecturally pleasing,” but, if not a historic renovation, then “modern and iconic.” It’s as if the arbiters said, “This is cool and trendy” and “This is what we are supposed to be,” instead of asking tougher questions about how libraries can project humanist values and serve as billboards and backdrops for civic life.

I will wait for concrete designs to determine whether the Mies bones of the King library can do that. In the meantime, we all need to remember that libraries should send a message—especially to young people—that education and reading is important. Libraries, and schools for that matter, are not recreation centers, car inspection centers, or everyday commercial structures. They demand more attention to purpose and architectural message.  And it’s incumbent on those of us who create, that we create better. Because the youth who experience these creations are our future design consumers. And with visual literacy—as well as book literacy—we can inspire more generations who believe that buildings, like books, are timeless treasures that foster imagination, quality, care, and community understanding.

Post contributed by DMSAS Principal Craig Williams

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