ROMA Design Group On Designing The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

On August 22nd, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial opened to the public. The dream of creating a memorial to Dr. King, initiated decades ago around the kitchen table of two Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity members in Atlanta, has finally become a reality. Dr. King - a private citizen and man of peace - has taken his rightful place on the National Capital Mall on lands previously reserved to honor the memory of past wars and former presidents. This is the last memorial to be built on the central portion of the Capital Mall and it is the first to celebrate the contributions to democracy by an African American.

As the designers of the memorial, we are very proud to have been part of a significant effort to build an important place of recognition to the achievements of Dr. King. The memorial is an extraordinary accomplishment and to get to this point has taken a tremendous effort by many people - from those who worked to find a location and secure the memorial site, to those who joined forces to pass Congressional legislation enabling the memorial development, to those who raised funds and were a part of project implementation.

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MLK Memorial

There were also many voices that had to be heard and responded to in the process of developing the design from the original competition submission to the ultimate realization that the visitor sees today.

Just as there were many people involved in getting the memorial built, there are also many people now who have expressed and continue to express their thoughts and reactions to the Memorial. Much of the media coverage has centered on who sculpted the Stone of Hope and Mountain of Despair, the expression and the body language of the figurative sculpture of Dr. King and the color and quality of the stone. There have also been strong opinions on the quotations that have been used, how they have been arrayed, organized and edited.

While we interpreted the sculpture differently in our design, the completed work is still in keeping with the original concept. Lei Yixin's depiction of Dr. King is more assertive, more complete and crisply defined and stands more a part from the rest of the memorial than the way in which we had conceived it.

In our design, we had depicted Dr. King in a more contemplative and introspective manner, inspired by the well-known photograph by Bob Fitch of King standing in front of a picture of Mahatma Gandhi on the wall beyond. We had also envisioned the figurative representation of Dr. King as more incomplete, more integral to the Stone of Hope and more a part of the landscape expression of the entire memorial. Our thought was that the incompleteness of Dr. King's image and his unity with the stone would allow for greater engagement from the viewer. The completion of his image would then be in the viewer's mind's eye, allowing for an internalization of Dr. King's message. We had hoped that this approach would spur the viewer to the continued pursuit of civil rights and social equity.

We recognize that there is a major step that takes place in developing a full three-dimensional sculpture in stone from a two dimensional sketch. Although there are clearly purposeful differences evident in the final rendition by Lei Yixin, the emotional response that the sculpture has already elicited from visitors to the memorial demonstrates its success in achieving the effect that we originally sought. In this way, we believe that it capably achieves the intended meaning and effect.

The Mountain of Despair and the Stone of Hope are fundamental to the experience of the memorial, not only in the way that they are executed, but also in the way that they provide spatial and physical structure. They make manifest, in physical terms, Dr. King's own words in conveying the struggle of the movement and the promise of democracy.

The focus on the carving itself and who did it is drawing attention away from many other aspects that contribute to a total vision of place - a central part of the message and meaning of the memorial. For example, the stones are located strategically on the site to create a processional sequence of individual discovery that seeks to reflect the emotional content with which Dr. King's words were delivered. They are placed in a way that reinforces and makes more evident the importance of context and the relationship between the Jefferson, Lincoln and King Memorials. In this way, they subtly engage the visitor in the evolving message of democracy through the continuum of time, from the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to the Civil Rights Speech, which Dr. King delivered on the steps of the nearby Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

Beyond the centerpiece stones, the entire MLK Memorial is conceived in a landscape tradition, characteristic of other recent memorials, such as the FDR and the Vietnam Veterans War Memorials. This approach, which utilizes the contouring of the earth, the shaping of the site and natural elements to convey meaning is exceptionally well fitted to a memorial for Dr. King who was inspirational in his oratory and extensive use of metaphorical reference to the American landscape.

The MLK Memorial builds on the landscape tradition of previous memorials, but takes it in a different direction that is more appropriate to Dr. King and the message of this memorial. While, for example, the adjacent FDR Memorial creates a unique landscape setting that is apart from its surroundings, the MLK Memorial builds on the landscape qualities of the Capital Mall, particularly in its relationship to the Tidal Basin and the cherry trees that enfold it. The embracing form of the MLK Memorial unifies the site, engages the Tidal Basin, reinforces the cove-like shape of the shoreline, and creates a space that is peaceful and expansive and that, in its form, nurtures inclusivity, shared purpose and a sense of community. In this way, the characteristics of the landscape speak to the characteristics of the man that it was intended to honor.

The design of the memorial, in its relationship to the surrounding context, is more closely aligned to the landscape approach of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. However, it is also very different in the emotion that it intends to evoke. The way in which the Vietnam Memorial slices through the earth and creates a scar of black stone in the landscape is purposefully and profoundly elegiac. In contrast, the use in the MLK Memorial of softer forms, of trees, plantings and other natural materials shared with the surrounding context, is meant to create a more uplifting mood.

The design is intended to celebrate the hope and optimistic spirit of Dr. King and the value he placed on active citizenship. It is not intended as a eulogy, nor to focus on death or enshrinement. As Dr. King said "death is a comma not a period." As the cherry trees blossom in the springtime marking the season of his death, they will celebrate his life and achievement. The memorial is meant to be personally transformative, building a sense of commitment to the promise of positive social change and higher levels of achievement related to human rights and civil liberties.

We hope that this description helps to broaden the dialogue and provide a deeper understanding of the intentions and the vision for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The memorial dedication, originally planned for August 28th was disrupted first by an earthquake and then postponed by Hurricane Irene. It was then rescheduled for October 16th. We hope that Americans and visitors from around the world will come to this new memorial and be inspired to carry on Dr. King's legacy of peace, freedom, democracy and hope.