Federal Panel Backs King Memorial's Design

Ed Jackson Jr., chief project architect for the Rev. Martin Luther King memorial, with a miniature model of the sculpture.
Ed Jackson Jr., chief project architect for the Rev. Martin Luther King memorial, with a miniature model of the sculpture. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008

A powerful federal arts commission yesterday approved the overall design for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial near the Mall, but several members still were critical of the 2 1/2 -story sculpture of the civil rights leader that is the memorial's centerpiece.

The memorial's creators agreed to submit further details of the sculpture to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts for review and consider other adjustments, but they said the commission's approval allows them to proceed with the project. They said they plan to apply to the Department of the Interior for building permits next week.

The unanimous approval of the commission appeared to clear the way for construction of the $120 million crescent-shape memorial on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin near the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.

"It was final approval with conditions," commission secretary Thomas Luebke said, "meaning they've got things they need to resolve."

The District's other chief federal review agency, the National Capital Planning Commission, gave its approval this month.

Initial utility work began on the site in August, and the memorial is scheduled to be completed in 2010.

In April, the arts commission criticized the main 28-foot sculpture of King, called the Stone of Hope, saying it looked too "confrontational" and resembled sculptures in totalitarian states. The memorial foundation's chief architect ordered changes in the design, and the commission has praised the overall progress.

Last year, the memorial's foundation came in for other criticism when it selected Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin to work on the project. Critics said that an African American artist, or any American, would have been preferable. Yesterday, several members of the commission expressed lingering displeasure with the sculpture, which depicts King emerging from a giant block of stone. Two mock-ups of the sculpture -- one old, one new -- were on display yesterday at commission headquarters, in the National Building Museum on Judiciary Square.

Pamela Nelson, the vice chair of the commission, said the rough texture of the background stone and the realistic depiction of the emerging King seem to be "fighting with each other."

The chief project architect, Ed Jackson Jr., replied: "I have seen this at full scale. It takes your breath away. To judge this at a [mock-up] scale is not fair."

Several commissioners wondered whether they could get an idea of how the statue might look at full size, and Jackson agreed to have some full-size parts of the statue sculpted for the commission's examination. "That will be a large shipment," he said. It was not clear yesterday when or where that would happen.

The commission also objected to a line of security bollards planned for the main pathway to the memorial, saying it was not typical of King's philosophy, and urged that another security solution be found. Commissioners also thought there was not enough public seating in the plaza where the Stone of Hope will be erected.

But Earl A. Powell III, the commission's chairman, also told Jackson: "You've made wonderful progress on this in all ways. We're all ready to support this."

After the meeting, Jackson expressed satisfaction. "I got approval to proceed with the design of the site and building. I have what I'm looking for."

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