martin luther king, jr. memorial

Sigh. Yes, I know I’m a bit late with this post. Stop harping on me already! So for those of ya’ll living under rocks, yesterday (January 21, 2013, the third Monday of January) was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It also happened to be Inauguration Day, and Barack Obama got sworn-in for his second term as POTUS … ya know, no big.

I wanted to post yesterday because the circumstances of the day would have tied in perfectly with a discussion about the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. But you’ll excuse my tardiness, won’t you? The memorial faced a wave of criticism when it was unveiled in 2010 and a lot of the points made were quite valid. Yesterday there was an article in “The Atlantic” that tried to defend the memorial, but … did he visit the same memorial I did? I’m not buying a lot of what he says. And the author of the article? A lawyer. Um, yeah. No offense, but I’m going to trust my eye for aesthetics and spatial concerns over yours.

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Personally I don’t like the memorial. I don’t hate it and I’m not going to vilify it, but I found the overall effect to be harsh and cold and alienating – not words I would normally associate with Martin Luther King, Jr. Standing at 30 feet tall, with crossed arms and a stern expression, the figure towers menacingly over visitors. He is carved in white granite (which as a material feels inherently distant and inaccessible) and remains embedded, not fully realized, in the rock.

Certainly it was meant to convey a sense of strength and immovability in the face of adversity/discrimination, but it comes across as if he is stuck but too proud or arrogant to realize his position. He has no feet, they are swallowed by the rock; he cannot stand for himself, the rock goes all the way to his head; he is not free, he is completely attached to a giant chunk of rock. And yet there he is, staring out into the Tidal Basin … all by his lonesome.

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My major issues with the memorial are with the space, the scale, and the sense of the man created. The memorial is set back from the road and away from many of the other memorials, to where you need a sense of what you are looking for and where it is or you’ll overlook it. There’s a weird empty plaza which funnels you through a gap, at which point you see the gigantic chunk of white granite (that was seemingly pushed from that gap), and then only after you finally walk all around that chunk and crane your neck upwards do you see the figure of King, who stares at the water as if annoyed he’s staring at water with his back (er … his chunk-rock-back) to the entrance.

Basically, the amount of empty space is too much, the figure of King is too large, and the presence of rock is too heavy.

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There were other issues, such as an oddly-edited quote inscribed on the memorial (the one seen in the image directly above), but since that’s being fixed, I’ll leave it be. There was also the shoddiness of choosing a Chinese sculptor instead of an American for the representation of such an important American figure, but that’s politics/economics for you.

I appreciate that the memorial has King boldly standing in the open as opposed to being protected in a little house like Jefferson or Lincoln, and I appreciate that there at least is a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. in DC. And maybe all that space won’t seem so useless when it’s filled with crowds of summertime tourists, and maybe the stone won’t seem so harsh when there is warm sunlight bounding down, and maybe the figure of King won’t seem so stern when you’re not freezing because it’s cold outside and there’s a cold breeze coming off the Tidal Basin. But I doubt it. In the end it was a poorly executed memorial for a great, important man in US history. It’s a shame.

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