A new endangered species: Modern architecture
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is at the center of a debate on whether such buildings are worth saving.
The sleek exterior of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, a behemoth of black steel and tinted glass, belies an interior plagued with leaky ceilings, broken elevators, and "wasted" space.Skip to next paragraph
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The building, a victim of years of disrepair, is situated on prime real estate in downtown Washington, D.C. Preservationists worry that if the building is sold to a private developer, it may face demolition. A proposal to sell the library and build a new one elsewhere failed last year by a single vote in the city council.
Now three historic preservation advocacy groups have come together to protect the library from the wrecking ball. With support from local officials and architects around the country, they nominated the 35-year-old building for historic landmark status, saying it is an icon of the Modern style of design.
"We will go in with a united front" to push for landmark status, says Ginnie Cooper, executive director of the D.C. public library system. The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board will make its decision June 28.
The King library's situation is not unique. Nearly 50 years after the peak of Modern influence in the United States, historic preservationists and architects say Modern architecture is too frequently torn down or renovated beyond recognition without consideration of its place in architectural history. A report released this month by advocacy group World Monuments Fund (WMF) lists Modern architecture as an "endangered" species.
No exact numbers exist, but WMF program manager Marty Hylton estimates that nearly 60 percent of US buildings built in the mid-20th century were influenced by the Modern style. A Modern building facing "inappropriate" renovation or demolition can be found today in almost every city in the United States, Mr. Hylton says.
Part of the social and political movement of the same name, Modernism emphasizes transparency (big windows are a key component), practicality, and a break with the past, most visibly through the rejection of ornamentation and an embrace of technology and materials considered innovative in the mid-20th century – steel, aluminum, and plastics.
The WMF report lists Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., designed by Paul Rudolph in 1957, and Grosse Pointe Public Library in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., designed by Marcel Breur in 1953, as significant examples. Boston's City Hall, designed by Gerhard Kallmann, Noel McKinnell, and Edward Knowles in 1962, is another controversial case, and a decision on historic landmark status is pending.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, considered one of the premier architects of the Modern style, designed the MLK library in 1968.
'You love it, or you hate it'
Modernism has always been controversial and has faced intense criticism for what many in the design community see as a promotion of a sterile and boxy aesthetic. "Either you love it, or you hate it," says Joan Brierton, a historic preservation expert for the US General Services Administration's Center for Historic Buildings.
MLK library archivist Ryan Semmes says that he finds the building "drab looking" and uninviting. On the other hand, David Fixler, a Modernism preservationist and a architect based in Boston, says the MLK library is "well built" and "adds to the city.... Every effort should be made to bring that building back."