The U.S. Building of the Year for 2021 . . . is a building that was actually built in 1972.
Every year for the past 10 years, World-Architects, a group that advocates for quality in architecture, has been asking the public to choose their favorite building. One year, curators sought to highlight one building from each U.S. state; another year, they focused on American architects working abroad and foreign architects building in the U.S. This year, the poll’s theme revolved around adaptive reuse and renovation, showcasing 44 buildings that were given a second lease on life last year.
Around 5,000 people voted throughout January. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., came out on top, with more than 20% of the votes. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (who commonly went by “Mies”), one of the 20th century’s greatest architects, the 1972 library was reborn in late 2020 as a contemporary learning hub. Complete with a new public roof garden, 300-seat auditorium, and a suite of community spaces, it’s proof that 50-year-old buildings can be redesigned to meet 21st century requirements.
The library building was renovated by Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo, which has designed several libraries over the past 25 years, including the grass-covered library at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the recent renovation of the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan branch. The 1972 building was Mies’ only library (in fact, his only building in Washington, D.C.). As a result, the distinctive black-glass-and-steel façade—a similar element of which can be seen on Mies’ more famous Seagram Building in Manhattan—was retained intact. The interior was completely updated for more modern use.
Working in collaboration with OTJ Architects, Mecanoo activated the once-passive library, originally designed for people to sit and read, with a series of exhibition and performance spaces, a fabrication lab, and a pair of winding stairways to connect up to a new fifth floor. “It is not just about restoration or renovation; it’s about bringing new life into buildings that once served a purpose, and need to be transformed in order to serve their communities,” Mecanoo architects said in a statement.
The reinvented library is a prime example of a thoughtful conversion, but the entire contest is replete with creative uses for old buildings. Runners-up include a food coop in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which opened last fall inside a former grocery store that had sat empty for years; and the historic James Farley Post Office building in Manhattan, completely transformed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill into the much-publicized Moynihan Train Hall, which opened in January 2021. All the projects in the competition were drawn from a “Building of the Week” column that World-Architects Magazine featured throughout the year. (However, they weren’t necessarily all projects that were completed in 2021; World-Architects featured several buildings that had launched in the year or two before, as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library had.)
Neither adaptive reuse nor renovation is new to the architecture world, but both practices have been gaining more recognition as the building industry looks for ways to lower its carbon footprint. “Today’s context of climate change means nearly every building, within reason, should be considered for adaptive reuse or renovation,” says architect John Hill, editor-in-chief of World-Architects Magazine and curator of the U.S. “Building of the Week” and “Building of the Year” features.
Buildings in the U.S. generate almost 40% of annual global CO2 emissions. And while new buildings can be designed with a lower carbon footprint, 11% of a building’s carbon footprint comes from any CO₂ created during the manufacturing of new materials, the transport of those materials, and the construction itself. When architects choose to adapt existing buildings, much of those carbon emissions can be spared. As Hill says: “It would be great if the Building of the Year poll and winner played a part in encouraging architects and clients to consider adaptive reuse and renovation before new construction.”