Designing the King National Memorial, part 1

The Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial will be unveiled in Washington, D. C., on August 28, 2011, the forty-eighth anniversary of King’s historic concluding speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The dedication ceremony will have special meaning for me, because I attended the march and contributed to the King Memorial’s initial design – the basic elements of which were decided during a lunch early in the spring of 2000 at MacArthur Park restaurant near Stanford University. Before the extensive fundraising campaign began, before economic and political considerations intruded, two architects and I met to discuss how to memorialize King’s extraordinary life and visionary ideas.

A few weeks earlier, Bonnie Fisher, the Landscape Principal of the ROMA Design Group in San Francisco, had called me to ask whether I would collaborate with her firm in an international design competition sponsored by the King National Memorial Project Foundation – established by King’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity to raise the $100 million (now $120 million) needed to build and maintain the memorial. Bonnie’s query was not entirely unexpected, given my long association with King’s legacy. As the historian selected by Mrs. Coretta Scott King to edit her late husband’s papers, I had already been contacted by the Memorial Foundation to supply information about King for a poster advertising the design competition. I was wary, however, of any new distraction from my ongoing effort to publish a definitive multi-volume edition of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Bonnie arrived at the dinner with her husband, ROMA’s president Boris Dramov, my intention was merely to offer advice and wish them well in the competition. Nonetheless, I was soon impressed by Bonnie’s pert enthusiasm as she described ROMA’s “interdisciplinary” approach, bringing together architects, landscape architects, and urban planners to redesign urban environments. A California native in her late forties, Bonnie was an effective advocate in a profession I imagined required salesmanship as well as talent. ROMA’s previous projects had revitalized San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, a once-declining downtown area near where I had lived during the 1960s.

Boris, an immigrant born in Bulgaria and raised in Brazil, was somewhat older and more reserved. He had met Bonnie in the early 1980s while both were at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Each conveyed a thoughtful sense of idealism about their profession and exuded sincere interest in making an enduring contribution to King’s legacy. I admired their willingness to commit considerable time and resources to a competition without a large monetary prize that would be judged by “blind” jury unaware of which team had submitted a particular design.

As our conversation turned to the memorial, I realized how much my views of King had changed since the 1960s, when I had championed the grassroots organizing “bottom-up approach” of his critics in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Even after becoming director of the King Papers Project, I still criticized the popular tendency to ignore King’s provocative anti-war and anti-poverty speeches while giving excessive attention to his extemporaneous “I have a dream” refrain at the march. I saw King as more than simply a charismatic orator but nonetheless had to concede the remarkable impact of his most famous sound-bite. It seemed obvious that a King memorial built near the Lincoln Memorial should celebrate the Dream speech and the man who eloquently expressed the larger historical significance of the African-American freedom struggle.

Although I had no expertise in landscape design, I recommended that the design visualize the vivid metaphorical language of King’s 1963 oration. Calling up familiar passages from memory, I suggested some possibilities for visual themes. King’s insistence that black Americans would “not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” for example, might readily be expressed through fountains and running water. The evocative images King had used to illustrate his “dream” of a future America offered other possibilities.

Then we focused our attention on a less often quoted passage – “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” King’s extended metaphor suggested dramatic large-scale elements for a memorial that would celebrate an inspirational advocate of racial justice as well as a famous orator. We imagined visitors to the memorial entering through an opening cut through the granite core of a Mountain of Despair. The removed slice – the Stone of Hope – would be thrust forward and turned slightly so that visitors entering through the Mountain would encounter an inscription of King’s words on the slab’s smooth surface.

Rather than a familiar passage from the “dream” refrain or from King’s dramatic “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last” conclusion, I proposed that we feature a passage near the beginning of his prepared text. King reminded his audience that “the architects of our republic” had signed “a promissory note” – “a promise that all men, yes, black men and well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’” King’s call for the nation to “live out the true meaning of its creed” would, I expected, serve as a continual reminder to Americans that their nation had still not realized some aspects of his dream.

By the time we concluded our productive lunch, we had reached agreement about key elements of the design. My initial reluctance had given way to an eagerness to work with ROMA’s interdisciplinary team. During the spring and early summer of 2000, with periodic advice from me, Bonnie, Boris, Jim Adams, Burton Miller, and other talented ROMA designers undertook the difficult task of transforming tentative ideas into drawings and eventually a coherent plan for the memorial.

At future Tidal Basin site of King Memorial

Using diagrams and maps of the Washington Mall and the Potomac River’s Tidal Basin, the ROMA group situated the Mountain of Despair on the four-acre site so that it not only served symbolic purposes – it was on the axis from Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial – but also shielded the rest of the memorial from the traffic on Independence Avenue. Placing the Stone of Hope near the edge of the Tidal Basin drew attention to the aquatic background and the Jefferson Memorial across the Basin.

Bonnie and Boris were insistent that the memorial not stand apart from its natural bucolic setting, especially the oak, magnolia, and cherry trees that shaded the gentle slope around the Tidal Basin’s curved shore. Although constructing the memorial would inevitably alter the site, the large stone structures we envisioned were not intended to overwhelm the existing restful environment. The Mountain of Despair would be partly covered with landscaping that blended with the setting. A water fountain softened the impact of that long Inscription Wall that extended on each side of the Mountain and served as a tablet for King’s notable quotations.

Roma model of King National Memorial

ROMA model of King National Memorial

The memorial design offered visitors various vantage points to appreciate this blend of natural and built elements. A walkway across the top of the Inscription Wall provided an elevated view of the Stone and the Basin. I indulged my bottom-up perspective of the African-American freedom struggle by suggesting that activists who were less widely known than King should be honored by semi-circular niches along the walkway. I imagined a public selection process would increase awareness of figures such as Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, or the four Birmingham children murdered in 1963 in a church. These two dozen small seating areas would also serve as springs for the water flowing over the wall.

The only point of contention was whether the design would include a statue of King. I resisted the idea of a heroic Great Man representation of a man who often described himself as simply “a symbol of the movement.” I had also been unimpressed with the bust of King I saw unveiled in 1986 at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington and recognized that it was difficult to create a convincing sculpted image of a man depicted in numerous iconic photographs. For many of his admirers, King’s inspiring words made him seem taller and more imposing than his actual five-foot, seven-inch stature.

Bonnie and Boris persuaded me, however, that many visitors – and perhaps the jurors for the competition – would miss seeing a statue of King. We settled on the idea of sculpting an image of King into the rough edge of the Stone of Hope facing toward the Tidal Basin. Visitors standing at the edge of the Basin would be able to turn back to see King’s visage as an integral feature of the Stone. As Boris explained at the time, the image would be “unfinished, allowing people through their own memories to complete the picture.”

For a model, I supplied the photograph by Bob Fitch that was used on the cover of my edition of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. This portrait of King standing in front of a desk at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Atlanta headquarters depicted him not as charismatic orator nor even as a civil rights protester but as a contemplative intellectual. His arms crossed, with Gandhi’s portrait on the wall in back, he holds a pen in his right hand. ROMA’s Stone of Hope drawings based on the photograph showed King in a pensive pose – we imagined him taking a break from drafting his reference to the “Promissory Note” and looking across time and the Tidal Basin toward Jefferson, one of the nation’s founding “architects” and principal author of the Declaration of Independence. The two men would serve as historical frames for a perpetual dialogue about the meaning of American democracy.

Stone of Hope with King’s Promissory Note

As we finished work on the memorial design, our optimism about our chances was buoyed by confidence that our design that exploited the possibilities of the site, gave visual expression to some of King’s prophetic insights, and offered inspiration without being overly didactic. Yet, because our basic concept seemed so simple and obvious, I wondered whether other design teams in the competition would also submit proposals that used the rich figurative language of the Dream speech.

The competition attracted almost nine hundred entries from 33 countries. Even after I learned that we were among the three finalists invited to attend the September 2000 ceremony in Washington announcing the winner, I still did not want to build up my expectations. I was surprised to see that Mrs. King was among those attending the event and learned that her daughter, the Reverend Bernice King, would help to decide among the three finalists. I had not informed anyone at the King Centerthat I was a participant in the competition and only belatedly realized that this might not be the best way for King family members to learn of my involvement.

At Ceremony Announcing Winner of King Memorial Design Competition

I was both relieved and elated when our proposal was announced as the winner. Yet I was also aware that few of those at the ceremony even knew why I was there. As a gaggle of reporters and professional acquaintances gathered around Bonnie and Borris, I was hesitant to intrude on their moment of triumph. Winning the design competition was a high point of their distinguished careers; for me it prompted a mostly private sense of accomplishment. I could not help feeling a measure of disappointment when Bonnie informed me that only one member of the ROMA team would be able to join Dr. Ed Jackson, the architect who chaired the design jury and headed the King Foundation, to appear on the morning news shows.

~ by Dr. Clayborne Carson on August 5, 2011.

One Response to “Designing the King National Memorial, part 1”

  1. […] Designing the King National Memorial, part 1 […]

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