Edward Rothstein, the critic-at-large for The New York Times, had an excellent review of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. the other day. (It seems that Michael Kimmelman, the paper’s new architecture critic, will not start until September.) It’s only fair to point out that Rothstein makes some of the exact same criticisms that I made here. Read on for the full review.
A Mirror of Greatness, Blurred
by Edward Rothstein
Published in The New York Times on August 25, 2011. Available here.
WASHINGTON — It is a momentous occasion. Into an honored array of presidents and soldiers — the founders and protectors of the nation — has come a minister, a man without epaulets or civilian authority, who was not a creator of laws, but someone who, for a time, was a deliberate violator of them; not a wager of war but someone who, throughout his short life, was pretty much a pacifist; not an associate of the nation’s ruling elite but someone who, in many cases, would have been prevented from joining it.
That figure is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his four-acre, $120 million memorial on the edge of the Tidal Basin (which was to have been dedicated on Sunday before officials postponed the event because of the approaching storm) is adjacent to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, across the water from Thomas Jefferson’s, and along an axis leading from that founding father directly to Abraham Lincoln’s. There are few figures in American history with similar credentials who would have even a remotely comparable claim for national remembrance on the Washington Mall.
Perhaps, though, it was the expectation of such consecrated company that led to the kind of memorial that now exists. There is always an element of kitsch in monumental memorials, a built-in grandiosity that exaggerates the physical and spiritual statures of their human subjects. That is one of the purposes of turning flesh into imposing stone. We can feel it when standing at Lincoln’s toe level in his Grecian memorial on the Mall. It is unavoidable, too, in the Pantheon-like gazebo that houses the towering figure of Jefferson at the edge of the Tidal Basin.
So it should be no surprise that something similar happens to Dr. King. But his statue, by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, goes even further. Those of Jefferson and Lincoln are a mere 19 feet tall; Dr. King looms 30 feet up, staring over the Tidal Basin. And he isn’t decorously posed in a classical structure; he isn’t contained in an ordered space with Greek or Roman allusions. His form emerges halfway out of an enormous mound of granite so heavy that 50-foot piles had to be driven into the ground to provide support.
We don’t even see his feet. He is embedded in the rock like something not yet fully born, suited and stern, rising from its roughly chiseled surface. His face is uncompromising, determined, his eyes fixed in the distance, not far from where Jefferson stands across the water. But kitsch here strains at the limits of resemblance: Is this the Dr. King of the “I Have a Dream” speech? Or the writer of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech?
And while no memorial on the Mall has ever had an easy time of it, this one surely had its share of problems. Dr. King was a member of the country’s first black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, whose officials began the commemorative plans. Between 1996, when the fraternity’s oversight was first approved by Congress and President Bill Clinton, and the dedication, the memorial’s site has shifted back and forth, its privately raised funds have become intermittently scarce, and its development has inspired a number of controversies.
The King family is reported to have demanded and received about $800,000 in fees from the foundation that was established to create the memorial, just for permission to use Dr. King’s words and likeness for fund-raising. Following the appointment of Mr. Lei as sculptor, the foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, let alone an American.
But its leaders — including Harry E. Johnson Sr., its president, and Dr. Ed Jackson Jr., its executive architect — also ran a blind international design competition that was overseen by an appointed group of architects and designers; the commission was awarded to a San Francisco firm, the ROMA Design Group.
And if you look at the early designs and guidelines, you see the nature of the original ambitions. The descriptions on the memorial’s Web site, mlkmemorial.org, speak of Dr. King’s emphasis on “hope and possibility,” and on his belief in “a future anchored in dignity, sensitivity and mutual respect.”
Indeed, a 450-foot curving wall offers brief quotations from Dr. King’s speeches that emphasize his almost heroic faith in the face of unrelenting opposition:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” he wrote in 1963, “only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
“Unarmed truth and unconditional love,” he believed, almost impossibly, would have the final word: “Right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” And he could be absolutist about it. “Injustice anywhere,” he said, “is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Quotations from the late ’60s reveal hints of a different sensibility developing, perhaps out of continuing disenchantment: a transnational universalism. “Every nation,” he said, “must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole.”
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional,” he said in 1967. “We must develop a world perspective.”
Originally, ROMA called for water as a major element of the design, glistening sheets flowing over the arc of carved words as fountains murmur, creating a pastoral, meditative atmosphere. The water would also have been a direct allusion to Dr. King’s “Dream” speech and his frequent invocation of the prophet Amos (“let justice run down like waters …”). For budgetary reasons, though, the foundation abandoned almost all these plans, leaving just two small fountains near the entrance, but there was something profound and touching in the original vision.
That initial idea is now also pushed aside by a far less subtle conceit that takes center stage. You enter the memorial from Independence Avenue by walking through a narrow passage between two granite mounds. They arise out of the landscape without any context, and it becomes clear that the corridor between them was created by pushing out a slice of rock — the same rock that now sits at the center of the memorial, on the far side of which is carved the looming torso of Dr. King.
It turns out that these towering mounds at the entrance are supposed to represent something from the “Dream” speech: a “mountain of despair” and, in the rock slice from which Dr. King emerges, the “stone of hope.” The slab is inscribed: “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
But do these mounds of granite, which are given an almost artificial appearance with their sketchy, cartoonish contours — do they evoke anything at all like a “mountain of despair”? And the unattractive slice supposedly pushed into the center of the memorial: is that really a “stone of hope”? Certainly not, judging from the expression on Dr. King’s face.
The metaphor is not one of Dr. King’s best, anyway, but to center an entire memorial on it, and then to do so in a way that makes no real sense, is baffling. Moreover, the original context of the line from the speech is quite different. Dr. King, after the demonstration in Washington, was going back to the South, his faith intact.
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” he proclaimed. “With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
It is an active phrase; Dr. King and his followers hew the stone from the mountain. Here it is just the opposite; the stone of hope is sliced away and apparently pushed to the center. Dr. King is pushed along with it.
As for the portrait of Dr. King, it seems to have been based on a photograph by Bob Fitchthat shows him with crossed arms, engrossed in thought. But here, the crossing of arms is a sign of something else: determination, perhaps. Or command. Monumental, not human.
And the mound’s isolation from any other tall objects, its enormity and Dr. King’s posture all conspire to make him seem an authoritarian figure, emerging full-grown from the rock’s chiseled surface, at one with the ancient forces of nature, seeming to claim their authority as his. You don’t come here to commune with him, let alone to attend to the ideas the memorial’s Web site insists are latent here: “democracy, justice, hope and love.” You come to tilt your head back and follow; he, clearly, has his mind elsewhere.
It is difficult to know precisely why all this went wrong, or why this memorial never alludes to the fundamental theme of Dr. King’s life, equal treatment for American blacks. It strives for a kind of ethereal universality, while opposing forces pull it in another direction.
The failure may also have a larger cause. Many recent memorials proliferating along the Mall have trivialized or mischaracterized their subjects. The World War II memorial seems almost phony, with its artificial allusions to antiquity; the Roosevelt Memorial diminishes that president and even implies that he was a pacifist (featuring his words “I hate war”) instead of a wartime leader responsible for building up the “arsenal of democracy.” Why shouldn’t Dr. King, too, be misread — turning the minister into a warrior or a ruler, as if caricaturing or trying too hard to resemble his company on the Mall?
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
An earlier version of this review misidentified the building that the Jefferson memorial resembles. It is the Pantheon, not the Parthenon.