Transformed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library reopens in Washington DC

23 November 2021
  • Trent Bell
  • Trent Bell
  • Trent Bell
  • Robert Benson
  • Robert Benson
  • Trent Bell

Mecanoo/OTJ Architects


Washington, DC

United States

Mecanoo & OTJ connect library with city to create welcoming space for all

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library (MLKL) has re-opened in Washington D.C., following a three-year transformation by Tenderstream member Mecanoo, in collaboration with OTJ Architects. The library, which opened in 1972, is the only library designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and was subsequently named after Dr. King. The redesign aims to emphasis the library’s role as a contemporary lifelong-learning hub which reaches out to all communities. Francine Houben, principal, founding partner and creative director of Mecanoo, says: “We have been guided by Martin Luther King’s timeless values and implemented them in this, the most important library for the people of America’s capital.”

In the lobby, below a mural from 1986 by Don Miller, which celebrates Dr King’s life, Mecanoo recessed the wall and lined it with vertical wooden slats. Bench steps rise from floor level, drawing people to sit, chat, read and watch. A new café, partitioned by glass from the great hall, extends to an outside area. Brick walls were cut back and opened to the sidewalk, connecting the library with the city. Two new wood-lined staircases, characterized by sculptural fluidity, curve up around a middle void, with natural light falling through circular skylights. 

The lower ground floor is now open to library users for the first time, containing facilities for resources and skills training. On the second floor, a continuous reading counter stretches along the window as part of a 220m-long “Reading Ribbon” over multiple floors. A colourful new children’s library includes a slide beside one of the staircases, while the fourth floor features a major 291-capacity auditorium, with banked seating that rises into the entirely new fifth floor. There, the auditorium lobby is bordered by conference rooms and an events centre, which opens into a new sky-garden. 

Mecanoo’s extensive research included dialogue with Jack Bowman, an architect who worked on the original building, and Charles Cassell, who led the campaigner to name the library ofter Dr. King. Houben stated: “We have made the MLKL more organic, more transparent and more open, both physically and in how it reaches out to Washington D.C.. 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.” 

Lucy Nordberg
Tenderstream Head of Research

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