Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Tale of Two Modernist Libraries

Johnson Building / Boston Public Library, renovated by Rawn Associates, Architects. Photograph by Robert Benson.

The Johnson Building at the Boston Public Library (BPL), designed by Philip Johnson, and the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., designed by Mies van der Rohe, were both completed in 1972, and both share a similar trait: their rigidity. Neither Johnson’s nor Mies’ best work, the two buildings nonetheless exhibit all the hallmarks of the sometime collaborators’ respective styles: in Johnson’s case, the granite wallpaper he favored that decade; in Mies’ case, the dark steel exterior cage. Both buildings feature grids repeated in plan, in elevation, in lighting, and in section, tying the structures together but also limiting movement, flexibility, and sight lines.

As much as the buildings have aged, they have also been undone by fundamental shifts in our expectations for libraries. “That was the zeitgeist: A public library was not really for the public. You were protecting the books from people,” says Francine Houben, Hon. FAIA, founding principal at the Dutch firm Mecanoo. “Today, libraries are about people who want to get knowledge, and you can do that in many ways.”