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 17 April, 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 congratulated the applicant on the overall progress and recommended approval of many components of the memorial. However, the Commission made a strong recommendation to rework the depiction of Dr. King and considers this issue critical to its approval of the memorial under the Commemorative Works Act.
The Commission's response to the individual aspects of the memorial are outlined as follows:
Inscriptions. The Commission endorsed the concept of the proposed design of inscriptions as proposed, including the typography, scale, and general layout with the understanding that the final design may be adjusted. The Commission members also reviewed the sample of a carved inscription which they approved in concept.
Stone selection and paving. The Commission gave its preliminary approval for the palette of stones presented for these elements of the memorial: the paving, the fountain areas, and the central "Mountain of Despair" and "Stone of Hope" elements. The members commented on the elegance of the palette as a whole and unanimously preferred the cleft-face granite to be used at the water elements. They noted that the overall paving pattern has been successfully redesigned to address their concerns from their previous review. For final approval, the Commission will require a material sample mockup must be erected on site for its review.
Regarding the inscription wall, the Commission members expressed a strong recommendation to use a stone similar in character to the large-grained gray-green granite sample, which they said is appropriate to the wall's expansive scale. They rejected the sample of the finer-grained stone which was suggested as a possible substitution, noting that its uniformity would be too similar to tile and could appear to be artificial. They recommended the use of a non-specular finish, such as honed, to avoid similarity to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.
Water elements. The Commission expressed a strong preference for the narrower width of water feature presented, with the comment that the water moving over the stone wall should have a substantial flow, as opposed to a trickle.
Contact/comfort station. While the Commission endorsed the relocation of the station northward on East Basin Drive to be closer to the memorial entrance, the members were critical of its scale and split plan with a court and recommended consolidating the program into a single smaller massing. They supported the palette of materials presented and look forward to reviewing the revised design for this element.
Landscape design. The Commission gave preliminary approval for the overall design of the proposed landscape in specification and detail, including the general disposition of planted ornamental shrubs, cherry trees, and the winter jasmine which may overhang the inscription wall periodically. However, the Commission requests that further study be given to the location and specification of trees at the main diagonal entrance plaza in order to provide maximum shade for visitors.
Lighting. The Commission expressed satisfaction with the revised proposal for the continuous grated trench to accommodate lighting for the inscription wall and approved the overall concept for the lighting proposal.
Central sculpture. The Commission amplified its concerns from its previous review in November 2007 regarding the treatment of the central sculptural elements of the memorial. While the proportions and dimensions of the "Stone of Hope" and the "Mountain of Despair" have been adjusted to return partially what was depicted in earlier submissions, the Commission raised a specific concern about the character of the carved depiction of Dr. King. Noting that the original concept showed an image of Dr. King that was asymmetrically composed, dynamic in stance, meditative in character, and modeled as if emerging from the Stone of Hope, the Commission members said the develop¬ment as shown now features a stiffly frontal image, static in pose, confrontational in character—and appearing as if it had been affixed to the surface of the Stone of Hope.
In general, the Commission members found that the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries. They said that the proposed treatment of the sculpture—as the most iconographic and central element of the memorial to Dr. King—would be unfortunate and inappropriate as an expression of his legacy. They recommended strongly that the sculpture be reworked, both in form and modeling, to return to a more sympathetic idea of the figure growing out of the stone with increasing detail and emphasis of the upper part of the figure. The Commission cited precedents of a figure emerging from stone in the works of sculptors such as Michelangelo and Rodin.
The execution of the sculpture will be critical to the memorial's success and to the permanent remembrance of Dr. King; the sculpture's prominent location within the Monumental Core and its substantial size along the Tidal Basin also make it a work of great importance. The Commission is deeply concerned with guiding the design and execution of the sculpture; traditionally, the Commission and staff have offered such guidance through the regular periodic review of drawings, material samples, maquettes, mock-ups, and inspection of the work in the artist's studio. They request that you coordinate closely with the staff during the design development and approval process.
In closing, the Commission thanked the Foundation and the National Park Service for the substantial progress in addressing many elements of the memorial's concept design. Before a final submission is made, the Commission members anticipate further review of the proposed sculpture as well as other outstanding issues such as the proposed inscriptions, their layout, and the design of the comfort/contact station.
As always, the staff is available to assist you with the next submission.
Thomas E. Luebke, AIA
Joseph M. Lawler, Regional Director
National Park Service, National Capital Region
1100 Ohio Drive, SW
Washington, DC 20242
cc: Peter May, National Park Service Dr. Ed Jackson Jr., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc.