Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial
Independence Avenue, SW at the northwestern rim of the Tidal Basin
Dear Mr. Lawler:
In its meeting of 15 November, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed the revised concept design for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial at Independence Avenue, SW along the Tidal Basin. The Commission members noted the overall progress of the design and made numerous recommendations for further refinement, requesting that their comments be addressed in a revised submission.
The Commission expressed an overall concern about the scale of the memorial's central elements—which appear to have grown since previous submissions—particularly regarding the proportions and dimensions of the "Stone of Hope" and the "Mountain of Despair." An example is that the Stone of Hope with the engaged sculpture of Dr. King is now several feet taller than what was approved in concept, as well as considerably wider, and the Commission recommended that the Stone of Hope be returned to its original proportions and scale. The Commission also commented that the new position of the Stone is too close to the Mountain and recommended that it be returned to its original position in the plaza. Due to the proximity of the Tidal Basin, the sculpture will be difficult to view from a distance sufficient to avoid excessive distortion; the artist will need to consider the distorting effect of viewing angles in developing the design for this component.
The Commission members continued to express skepticism about the suitability of water features framing the Mountain of Despair. They commented that the scale of the proposed feature is trivial in the context of the memorial; they suggested that the water element be either eliminated, or significantly enlarged to correspond to the large scale of the wall. They noted that broader water elements would result in reducing the area of the walls devoted to inscriptions, which they said could improve the overall composition of the memorial design. The Commission members commented that the inscriptions themselves will be a powerful feature of the memorial, conveying an important part of Dr. King's legacy. They expressed concern that the excessive number of inscriptions could lessen their impact and they emphasized the importance of submitting the complete layout of the inscriptions for review.
The Commission members recommended further study of the proposed lighting. Specifically, they said that the continuous stone-clad "footlights" at the base of the inscription wall are not an appropriate solution for illuminating the wall. The Commission members commented that the enclosures are an attempt to disguise the lights but have the opposite result of accentuating them; they would pose a tripping hazard for visitors and would likely accumulate water in any heavy rain or flooding event. The Commission therefore suggested a reconsideration of this element entirely, possibly to include other locations for the lighting such as in a handrail, at the top of the wall, or on standards.
In their consideration of the overall site design, the Commission urged that several areas of the site design be revised. They noted that the overall paving pattern is inappropriately domestic in character and should be reworked in a more random way to avoid the expression of a repeating module. Regarding the configuration of the memorial's main entrance at the northwestern corner of the site, they commented that the planters and wall elements are awkwardly configured in relationship to the corner and should be redesigned. The Commission supported the use of cherry trees behind the inscription walls and the informal grouping of larger trees behind them; the landscape design may be refined further to create an appropriate balance of scale and shade through the location and type of trees.
The Commission made several recommendations about the ancillary buildings proposed to the southwest of the memorial site. The Commission members said that the bookstore and restroom pavilion appears excessively tall and should be reduced in height and overall scale. They also suggested that this building be located further north, closer to the memorial's main entrance, to avoid confusion for visitors; the bus drop-off area should similarly be moved northward. Regarding the contact station, the Commission members questioned its location adjacent to the memorial and the Tidal Basin, both for its efficacy for surveillance and for its negative impact on the adjacent context; they suggested that it be incorporated into the bookstore and restroom building so that visitor information needs may be addressed at a single location that would not be so visible from the dignified setting of the memorial plaza.
The Commission members concluded together that, given the great scale of the proposed elements of the memorial, a full-size mockup on the site representing accurately the volumes of the Mountain of Despair and the Stone of Hope is necessary to address their design concerns. The Commission members also requested that a complete range of material samples be provided, along with a mockup of the proposed stone selection and joinery detail, for their review and approval. Finally, they requested a complete submission of the proposed inscriptions, including overall layout, full text of quotations, typography, and a full-scale sample carved in stone with proposed finishes.
The Commission looks forward to further review of a revised concept for this important project. As always, the staff is available to assist you with the next submission.
Thomas E. Luebke, AIA
Joseph M. Lawler
National Park Service, National Capital Region
1100 Ohio Drive, SW
Washington, DC 20242
cc: John Parsons, National Park Service