MLK Memorial review: Stuck between the conceptual and literal

Correction: Earlier versions of this review incorrectly said that the face of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial statue faces west. It faces southeast. This version has been corrected.

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 southeast, 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.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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