Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial photo
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Editorial Review

Review

MLK Memorial review: Stuck between the conceptual and literal

By Philip Kennicott
Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011

The new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. turns out to be a relatively modest affair. A stoplight on Independence Avenue SW announces the entrance, where a fan-shaped entry court leads to a 30-foot-high portal of carved stone. The memorial faces inward, away from the Mall, with planted earthen berms and trees obscuring it from many angles.

More than 180 new cherry trees have been added to this four-acre wedge of land between the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the bridge that crosses the northern edge of the Tidal Basin, keeping the space green and ensuring that the white necklace of blossoms that delights the world will be unbroken come spring. Except for a wall of green granite covered in quotations by King, and two main statue elements that represent a "Mountain of Despair" and a "Stone of Hope," the memorial is a low, pleasant plaza that integrates quietly into the landscape of West Potomac Park.

Even the 30-foot-tall statue of King, an early version of which prompted the Commission on Fine Arts to fret over its "confrontational" stance, imposing size and "Socialist Realist style," is turned away from the main entrance. King, who was plenty confrontational in real life, now looks off to the West, toward where F.D.R. sits in his equally controversial wheelchair. But there was no symbolism intended in that, according to executive architect Ed Jackson Jr.

There are ample places to sit, and if the trees survive to maturity, there should be shade, too. Once inside the plaza, the view across the Tidal Basin is delightful, and from the outside, the two halves of the mountain frame views nicely. Thus, the mountain adds something that the Tidal Basin has never really had before: A gate, or front door, which invites you in. If there were better mass transit to this site between 17th and 23rd streets SW - where designated parking will be limited to handicap spots and buses - it would make an ideal start and end point for a loop walk around the basin come blossom time.

Like too many memorials, however, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is stuck uncomfortably between the conceptual and literal. The concept, originally developed by the San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group, focuses on the Mountain of Despair, two massive, roughly arch-shaped granite bookends, and the "Stone of Hope," which contains a statue of King, carved by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin and shipped from Changsha, China.

The "stone" is meant to look as if it has been pulled out of the arch of the "mountain," and is turned slightly so that visitors first encounter a quotation by King, "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope," before they encounter King himself.

The stone of hope turns out to be derived from a rather violent allegory of political conflict and tribalism. The line is from King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. It was apparently based on an image from the second book of Daniel, in which the prophet interprets one of King Nebuchadnezzar's dreams. Nebuchadnezzar envisioned not a mountain, but a massive idol, or image, with a head of gold, arms of silver and thighs of brass. "As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces," says Daniel, prophesying the downfall of the old order.

King's version makes no reference to smiting and politics, and it was certainly not the intention of the designers to suggest anything controversial. Despite occasional citations from his later, more challenging speeches, the memorial is focused on the anodyne, pre-1965 King, the man remembered as a saintly hero of civil rights, not an anti-war goad to the national conscience whose calls for social and economic justice would be considered rank socialism in today's political climate.

The hope-from-despair concept is realized literally, with a giant statue of King embedded in the Stone of Hope, which is grooved on both sides to suggest that it has been physically extracted from the Mountain of Despair. But it turns out to be a rather tricky thing to base architectural design on rhetorical tropes. Especially King's rhetoric. The master orator was remarkably inventive in his metaphors and eclectic in his sources. If you read his writing too closely, the metaphors begin to contradict and undermine one another.

In the "Dream" speech, King spoke not only of a Mountain of Despair and Stone of Hope, but of a desolate valley of segregation, a solid rock of brotherhood, the majestic heights of "soul force" and a lonely island of poverty in a vast ocean of material prosperity. Sometimes valleys are exalted, sometimes they are places where people "wallow in despair." Even the heights, or high ground, aren't always a positive image in King's rhetoric. In one of his early speeches, in Montgomery, Ala., he spoke of being pushed from the "glittering sunlight of life's July" into the "the piercing chill of an alpine November."

It was very much a mobile army of metaphors that King deployed. To the listener, they are pure poetry. But they were never meant to be pinned down in the way that creating a $120 million memorial based on one trope pins down an image.

The image also created visual and design challenges that no one figured out how to solve. A mountain should be big, but a memorial near the Mall must be in scale to its surroundings - and given that the entire plaza rests on more than 340 pilings driven through marshy muck some 40 to 50 feet into bedrock, the mountain couldn't get much larger even if the relevant authorities had approved something more colossal. Metaphorically, it seems as if the Stone of Hope ought to be smaller than the mountain from which it is hewn, but because it contains a statue of King, it must be big enough to be impressive.

The result is a mishmash that looks a bit like King is attached to a giant door that has been pushed out of a rather meager hillock. The seams joining the 41 blocks of granite that make up the stone and the 118 blocks that make up the two sides of the mountain give both sculptural elements a somewhat flimsy, cobbled-together feel, as if they were intended for a roadside attraction, not a monument on the nation's most symbolically rich ground.

You could see this coming for years, and it was clear during the approvals process that plenty of people on the oversight committees were feeling queasy about the design. There were worries about the size of the King statue, and the rather brusque, arms-folded stance in which he is memorialized. Efforts to tweak the design didn't confront the central problem: the idea of representing King, the stone and the mountain literally. An imaginative landscape architect could have translated the mountain and stone concept into something more abstract. But once it was decided that there had to be a monumental, lifelike image of King, the concept and its literal execution were both doomed to failure.

The memorial could be vastly improved simply by removing the statue. Or by following King's original metaphor and hewing it down to something smaller and more abstract. When Franklin Roosevelt, King's next-door neighbor on the Tidal Basin, was asked how he would like to be memorialized, he supposedly responded that he'd like a plain block of stone, about the size of his desk, without ornament of any kind. That sounds like a perfect Stone of Hope, and all it would take is a few hours with a jackhammer to find one inside this unfortunate statue.

Even so, the plaza, the grounds and the quotations on the wall (easy bromides about peace, nonviolence, love, justice and righteousness from the King canon) are neither offensive nor intrusive. The canopy of green that will one day enshroud much of the memorial has limited its impact and disruption. If thought of as a slightly oversize front door, even the Mountain of Despair is not particularly problematic. From beginning to end, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial has been about a sanitized, feel-good fiction of King, and that seems to have produced a memorial that is mostly harmless and neighborly. If the problem of the statue is addressed, this newest addition to the national clutter will eventually fade into Washington's marble background of benches, bollards and inspirational blather. And the duty of honoring King can be performed where it ought to be, at the ballot box. (Updated March 9, 2012)

Tips for visitors

MLK Memorial a challenging site for visitors

By Robert Thomson
Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011

Freedom marchers who haven’t visited the capital since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the greatest speeches by an American on Aug. 28, 1963, will find the District much easier to get around as they arrive to dedicate King’s memorial.

Now they can travel on one of the nation’s biggest subway systems. But to place the King memorial by those for Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and Roosevelt, planners had to wedge it into a Tidal Basin site pretty far from any of the subway stations. And on dedication day next Sunday, the older soldiers of the civil rights movement may not be as up for a long march in the sun as the one they took to hear King talk about his dream.

These travel tips, for young as well as old, should help ease some of the challenges that will face a crowd that event sponsors say could be in the neighborhood of a quarter-million people.

The site

The best view of King’s statue is from the northwest side of the path that surrounds the Tidal Basin. The path is about the width of four people standing shoulder to shoulder. Nearby, cherry trees overhang the path and the water. The memorial’s main entrance is on Independence Avenue SW, where a new traffic signal and crosswalks will provide access.

While this western side of the Mall puts a visitor in range of the King, Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Korean War and Vietnam War memorials, travelers can easily get disoriented. Brown pylons point the way to the sites, but there are no pointers yet for the King Memorial. The “You are here” maps don’t have a distinctive icon to mark the new memorial. Look for the small, white lettering by West Potomac Park that says, “Future site of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.”

The memorial is opening to the public this week, before the dedication next Sunday. Here’s the schedule: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday; and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday.

The dedication

Next Sunday, the music starts at 8:30 a.m. The dedication ceremony starts at 11 a.m. Visitors who don’t have tickets for the ceremony’s seating area will probably find themselves standing on the wide-open grassy fields of West Potomac Park. Their best view from there will be on big video screens set up for the event.

This may remind many of their experience at the 2009 presidential inauguration. Only that was in January.

This time, they could spend hours in the heat or the rain. This area, laid out for ballfields, has few sheltering trees. With those conditions in mind, sponsors urge attendees to plan for a long day, wear light, loose-fitting clothing, monitor the weather forecast and bring a rain poncho if necessary. Wear sensible shoes, especially if you’re going to be walking across the fields.

Parking

This week, the National Park Service says, no vehicle drop offs will be allowed on Independence Avenue or Ohio Drive. A visitor taxi stand is available at the Lincoln Memorial.

Don’t try driving to the memorial area on dedication day. There will be a security perimeter, many nearby streets will be closed and parking restrictions will be in effect. Streets beyond the closed-off zone are likely to be congested.

Organizers recommend parking cars and buses at RFK Stadium, near I-295 and 395. The parking fees are $85 for buses and $25 for cars. For details on permits, see the organization’s Web site at dedicatethedream.org.

Buses entering the District must purchase a bus trip permit, valid for six days. This is in addition to the parking permit for RFK Stadium. Bus companies can find more information at dmv.dc.gov/info/trippermit.shtm.

A parking area at RFK will be set aside for attendees who have vehicles equipped for wheelchairs or who have other mobility needs.

From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., free buses will shuttle people between RFK and a drop-off point on 23rd Street and Daniel French Drive SW. That’s the bus zone on the south side of the Lincoln Memorial, about a fifth of a mile from the area for ticketed guests on the memorial grounds. The free viewing area in West Potomac Park is just across Independence Avenue from the bus zone.

This is the choice organizers recommend for people with special needs, who are frail or who tire easily. But all participants should keep in mind that getting through these big crowds will be very challenging.

Metro

Metrorail: The train system will open at 5 a.m. next Sunday, two hours early. Service will end at midnight. From 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., trains will operate every eight to 12 minutes, an unusual frequency for a Sunday. The transit authority said trains will operate even more frequently on some portions of the Red and Orange lines that are likely to be crowded. No maintenance work requiring stations to close or trains to share tracks is scheduled.

Many station escalators will be turned off and will instead be used as stairways, Metro said. This is a standard safety procedure during special events of this size and is intended to prevent dangerous crowding on the platforms or on the escalators themselves. (This plan doesn’t affect elevator operations.)

Parking will be free at all lots and garages operated by Metro, but plan to arrive long before the ceremony starts to make sure you get a space.

Metrobus: The buses will operate on their normal Sunday schedules. Detours are possible in the area around the Mall, and riders heading downtown should allow extra time.

MetroAccess: Trips need to be reserved by 4:30 p.m. the day before travel. Because of the extra traffic and street closings, allow more time for travel through downtown.

Fares: Despite the extra service, the usual off-peak fares will be in effect next Sunday. Many people in town for the week-long series of events connected to the dedication will choose to buy Metrorail’s commemorative one-day pass, with its image of the King statue printed on the paper card. Those are good all day on Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays. If you use a one-day pass for travel on a weekday, remember that it won’t work before 9:30 a.m. Avoid long lines at vending machines and fare gates on dedication day by having enough value on your paper farecard or plastic SmarTrip card to cover a round trip.

Biking

Although this is a beautiful area for cycling, the crowding next Sunday will make street and sidewalk travel difficult. Bike parking around the memorial site is very limited. Bikes will not be allowed in the train system next Sunday.

Capital Bikeshare: A day’s membership in the bike rental program costs $5. There is a Bikeshare station at 19th Street and Constitution Avenue NW on the north side of the Mall. Other stations are at Virginia Avenue and 21st Street NW and at 19th and E streets NW. A big event like this probably will tie up many of the bikes, so it’s best to have an alternative plan. For details, check CapitalBikeshare.com.

Walking

Many attendees will be walking from Metrorail stations to the memorial. The closest stations are Smithsonian and Foggy Bottom on the Blue and Orange lines and Arlington Cemetery on the Blue Line. None of these is a short walk, but it should be manageable for a person in reasonable health, even in hot weather. Smithsonian is eight-tenths of a mile from the memorial grounds, Foggy Bottom 1.4 miles and Arlington Cemetery 1.2 miles. Metro predicts that Foggy Bottom and Smithsonian will be extremely crowded and suggests the alternatives of L’Enfant Plaza (Blue, Orange, Yellow, Green) at 1.3 miles, Farragut North (Red Line) at 1.5 miles, Farragut West (Orange and Blue) at 1.5 miles and McPherson Square (Orange and Blue) at 1.6 miles.

My choice would be the Arlington Cemetery station. It’s a nice, flat walk, and an inspirational one, because you cross the Potomac River via Arlington Memorial Bridge, looking up at the Lincoln Memorial, before bending right toward Independence Avenue.

The trip between the station escalators and West Potomac Park took me 21 minutes at a leisurely pace. Be especially careful crossing the roads around Memorial Circle, but on Sunday, you should be part of a big crowd of pedestrians.