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MASS design for new MLK branch, rejecting idea of apartments overhead, is best of 3 proposals (commentary)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Public Library, the Cleveland Foundation and LAND Studio ran a spirited design competition for a new Martin Luther King Jr. Branch that resulted in three strong choices unveiled last Thursday.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the concept offered by MASS Design Group of Boston, with LDA Architects, of Cleveland and other consultants, is the strongest choice.

More than any other proposal, the MASS proposal best meets the most important selection criteria in the design funded by the Cleveland Foundation and managed by LAND.

These include providing “an architecturally innovative and iconic design” that honors the legacy of Martin Luther King and “adds to University Circle’s reputation for excellent and architecturally varied and distinctive buildings.”

Ironically, the MASS design scores well on these points because it is the only one that rejects another criterion: that the new MLK branch would have an apartment building erected over it as part of the upcoming, $300 million Circle Square development in University Circle.

The big development project, which could begin construction next summer, calls for four blocks of apartments, retail and parking between Chester and Euclid Avenues west of Stearns Road,

The Request for Qualifications issued by the library last October to launch the library design competition states that Midwest Development Partners LLC agreed that before building the rest of its project, it would first replace the existing MLK Branch at 1962 Stokes Blvd with a the new, $10 million library along Euclid Ave. just west of Stokes.

The library and the developer also agreed that apartments could be built in the air-rights space directly above the library, creating a hybrid building 5 to 10 stories in height.

The finalist teams comprised of SO-IL of Brooklyn, New York, with architect Jonathan Kurtz of Cleveland, and Bialosky Architects of Cleveland with Vines Architecture of Raleigh, NC, followed the competition brief and showed how an apartment tower whose design is not yet known could fit atop the library.

All three teams also came up with credible concepts for a library with flexible, light-filled interior spaces that could accommodate education, public events, high-tech innovation and quiet learning.

They also provided three different, likeable ideas for how to display books in the library’s collection of books by winners of the Cleveland Foundation’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, given annually to writers on race and diversity.

The Bialosky proposal has the virtue of making eloquent use of daylight throughout its interior spaces, especially where light would pour down through penetrations in floor levels that would surround muscular “super columns” designed to support the library and the apartments above.

The SO-IL proposal took the bold step of reconceiving the library as an elevated “table of brotherhood” inspired by imagery in King’s famous “I have a dream speech.”

The MASS team, however, was alone in its decision that the library and the apartment tower would be better if they were treated as separate but adjacent structures.

By taking this position, the team is asking the library and Midwest Development Partners to reconsider whether apartments should surmount a library that would symbolically function as a memorial to one of America’s pivotal leaders on civil rights.

That’s a very good question to raise now.

Part of the reasoning behind the MASS proposal is the firm’s assertion is that the developer wouldn’t suffer economically if the apartment were treated as a separate building.

The designers suggest that Midwest development could make its apartment building 19 stories high instead of 10 stories, thereby compensating for the lost air-rights development space directly over the library.

An architectural advisory committee will grapple with this idea and other issues today, starting at 2 p.m. The library’s board of trustees will make the ultimate decision at a meeting on May 22.

The developer will certainly have a say. Steve Rubin, a partner at Midwest, said Friday that the firm is delighted by the results of the competition and is committed to collaborating with the library and “finding the best possible library that fits into the best possible development.”

He declined to comment on any specific proposal.

MASS brought to the library competition the firm’s widely known commitment to social justice. Its work includes the recently completed National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL.

That facility includes an open-air cloister memorial to victims of lynching, with 800 weathered rectangular steel columns hanging from the roof. Each is etched with the names of victims and their home counties.

As a reporter from the New York Times noted, as you reach the memorial, “the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.”

An equally vivid understanding of American history is evident in the MLK library proposal.

MASS conceived of the building as a free-standing architectural form with a pleated skin of colored glass designed by artist Hank Willis Thomas to evoke the coded messages in African American quilts used to send signals to slaves escaping from the South along stops on the Underground Railroad, including Cleveland.

The design calls for a library that could include an auditorium as well as a large, flexible space for community gatherings. It would also include an exterior staircase overlooking a plaza with a shallow reflecting pool, trees and sculptures including portrait busts of community leaders.

Any of the three proposals in the design competition would make a strong choice, and as Rubin, the developer, pointed out in his interview, all three raise functional and structural questions for Midwest development.

But if coming up with an iconic statement about King and the history of civil rights in America is the key consideration, the library and Midwest ought to rethink whether apartments should be placed above the new library.

The Case Western Reserve University campus, with Severance Hall in the foreground, as viewed last fall from the nearly completed One University Circle apartment tower.(Lisa DeJong, The Plain Dealer)

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