This weekend I met up with a friend who lives in Washington DC and was in San Francisco for a visit. I lived in Washington from 2004-2006 and we soon started talking DC politics. She’s lukewarm on first-term mayor Adrian Fenty, unsure of the Nationals prospects for next season, and when I mentioned that British architect David Adjaye has just been contracted to design two new branches of the DC Library (see this story from the Washington Post by culture critic and Dwell contributor Philip Kennicott), she responded with the weary tone of any Washingtonian told of proposed improvements to the local, not federal, infrastructure: “I’ll believe it when I see it."
She’s right to be skeptical. The damages of a fire in April of 2007 that burned part of the historic Georgetown branch have yet to be totally fixed, the Tenleytown-Friendship Heights branch, which had been under construction for years has been torn down (an interim library was opened in 2007) and what should be the crown jewel of the library system, the main Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and a 1972 design by Mies Van der Rohe, is a glass and steel monument to wasted space, which, during business hours, seems to shelter as many homeless as books.
The massive lobby space is largely unfilled, and, defying any good modernist’s love of an open plan, the fiction collection on the ground floor is glassed off from the atrium. The metal detector at the front door makes one feel as if their preparing to take a short flight, not peruse the stacks. And if any further proof were needed that Mies started repeating himself late in his career, look only as far as the 1968 Mellon Hall of Science at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for a nearly identical and more useful building.
What then to make of David Adjaye, who has been tapped to replace the Washington Highlands branch in Southwest and the Francis A Gregory library in Southeast, two of six library projects in the works? Personally, skeptical, but heartened. For one, it’s a rarity to see architects of Adjaye’s acclaim settle for anything less than the centerpiece, see Rem Koolhas’ Seattle Central Library, and Cesar Pelli’s recent Minneapolis Central Library. What’s more, both of these branches, though likely at least to give their neighborhoods a bit of uplift, are unlikely to be sought out by many Washingtonians for regular use. They are not centerpieces of the city’s architecture, rather they will become part of the fabric. This pair of buildings, set to cost around 9.5 million dollars apiece, may very well be catalysts for growth, but at the very least, they’ll be an upgrade over what’s there now. Here’s hoping Adjaye sets his sights higher than Mies.