Dutch architect Francine Houben talks about her journey in designing a new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C.

By Annabelle Zandbergen
Public Diplomacy, Press and Culture, Royal Netherlands Embassy

She is the Library Whisperer.

Dutch architect Francine Houben is leading the renovation design of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C. On March 1, Houben attended the premiere of “A Legacy of Mies and King,” a documentary about this project, to Washington residents who wanted to see what their library will become.

The documentary shows the struggles Houben has faced while redesigning the MLK Library. The building has a rich history, being designed by the famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and bearing the soul of Martin Luther King Jr.

In the process of making the library more comfortable, which of the two legacies should dominate?

The history of the library

The MLK Library opened in 1972, when Washington, D.C. was the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. According to the documentary, the library was the first building to be named after an African-American. Today, the building still plays an important role in carrying out the values of Martin Luther King Jr.

The MLK Library is Washington’s central library. In the 1960s, Mies had the task of designing what would be Washington’s first modern building. The German architect is well-known for his modernist architecture and his simplistic style.

“God is in the details,” was his famous dictum. The architect worked mainly with steel, glass, and brick, but these materials require maintenance.

The building is in a terrible state. One by one the single-glass windows are bursting out of their steel constructions.

According to Houben, this is “a process that cannot be stopped.”

Furthermore, spaces are poorly lighted, elevators do not work, and the stairwells are in such a bad condition that visitors are discouraged from using them.

Redesigning the library

Dutch architectural firm Mecanoo and American partner Martinez+Johnson were chosen in 2014 to design the revitalization project of the MLK Library, in part thanks to Houben’s growing reputation as the “Library Whisperer.”

She designed the Library of Birmingham in London, Library Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and the renovation of the New York Public Library. Being the leader of the MLK Library project, Houben has spent a lot of her time in and around the library.

The documentary shows how Houben constantly observes the building. She notices that visitors have preferences for chairs or workings spaces. Furthermore, she becomes conscious of the different functions of the building.

The MLK Library is a place for people to socialize, charge their mobile phones, or just visit the restroom. Furthermore, the building is an important place for many homeless people, who spend a lot of their time there.

However, Houben wanted the new design to make sure the library serves its main goal: being a center of knowledge.

“The library should become an inspiring place,” said Houben.

To accomplish this task, she decided to remove a lot of Mies’s brick walls and create more open and lit areas. Furthermore, she designed a new open curving stairwell, which will invite people to “follow their intuition” and explore the different levels of the building.

In addition to a more welcoming design, the new library will have roof terrace and a “create space” in which children can unleash their creativity.

“A library should be so incredibly beautiful that people want to bring their own book,” Houben said.

“A Legacy of Mies and King”will also be shown on April 13 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.