Why the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Failed—and How to Fix It

The design vision was strong, and the artist accomplished, but a couple of key changes were made between conception and execution

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Nearly 15 years after President Clinton signed legislation for the construction of a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall, the finished work was dedicated in October. The memorial is on the south side of the mall, on the edge of the Tidal Basin overlooking the Jefferson memorial. If you draw a straight line from the Jefferson to the Lincoln memorial, the King memorial is about halfway between them.

The memorial is intended to be entered from the corner of Independence Avenue and West Basin Drive, which is unlikely, because most pedestrian traffic approaches the memorial from farther east on Independence (the way I walked in), or from the FDR memorial to the south. If you arrive at the memorial the way the designers had envisioned, you might not at first see the memorial at all. At the corner there is a large amoeba-shaped planter made of granite -- this was added late in the design as a security measure to keep vehicles from driving into the memorial (Washington is littered with these makeshift "bomber barriers").

Past the ugly planter you see a fake mountain, its whitish/pinkish color suggesting snow or a pile of rock salt. At the center of the mountain, a wide slice has been removed, and you are supposed to pass between the cleft, arriving at a plaza where the missing piece has been pushed toward the Tidal Basin. Walking around this monolith you will discover a 30-foot-tall sculpture of King, appearing uncharacteristically stern and authoritarian, coming out of the rock face. On one side of the monolith are carved the words: Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

The problem is that they've taken a symbolic reference in King's great oratory, and made a memorial out of it by inflating it into a cartoon.

There is no plaque that explains the journey through the fake mountain, or how the King monolith seems to have become stranded in the middle of the plaza. The symbolism is from a quote in King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech, in which he says: "With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." King was talking about his faith in the dream of a nation free of prejudice. It is not one of King's more memorable quotes, but it is the theme for this memorial; if you're unfamiliar with this line, you might not "get it."

The problem with this memorial is that it takes a symbolic, rather obtuse reference embedded in King's great oratory, and attempts to make a memorial out of it by inflating it into a cartoon. And it is very cartoonish. When you first see this carved mountain it might remind you of a ride at Disneyland, or a miniature Mount Rushmore. The more you look at it the more ridiculous it appears, especially with a river of baffled tourists flowing through it, camera phones clicking away. Apparently the National Park Service, which maintains the memorial, has expressed concerns about frat boys repelling down the "mountain" late at night. It belittles the man and his memory.

If you walk into the memorial the "wrong" way, as I did off of Independent Avenue to the east, you have a different experience. You pass a bermed wall on one side, clad in green stone, into which quotes from King's speeches are carved. It is a gentle arc of a wall, which faces a low wall on the other side with benches and plantings. The inscribed wall rises from the ground to about 15 feet, effectively screening out traffic and noise, creating a fitting contemplative atmosphere. As you follow the arc around, reading the quotes, you finally arrive at King's monolithic statue, looking out over the water. You see him first in profile, and from this angle he initially appears contemplative as well. Moving past the monolith the experience runs in reverse, with more inscriptions and the high wall diminishing in height. In this way it is very much like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial nearby, composed of inscribed walls that give us a view into conflict: at the Vietnam memorial, the price paid in lives; at the King memorial, the words of a man dedicated to justice.

Presented by

New York Dozen author Michael J. Crosbie is an architect and chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Hartford. He writes frequently about architecture and design for a variety of print and online publications.

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