Michael J. Crosbie: Why the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Failed—and How to Fix It

Roundup: Talking About History

New York Dozen author Michael J. Crosbie is an architect and chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Hartford. He writes frequently about architecture and design for a variety of print and online publications.

Nearly 15 years after President Clinton signed legislation for the construction of a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall, the finished work was dedicated in October. The memorial is on the south side of the mall, on the edge of the Tidal Basin overlooking the Jefferson memorial. If you draw a straight line from the Jefferson to the Lincoln memorial, the King memorial is about halfway between them.

The memorial is intended to be entered from the corner of Independence Avenue and West Basin Drive, which is unlikely, because most pedestrian traffic approaches the memorial from farther east on Independence (the way I walked in), or from the FDR memorial to the south. If you arrive at the memorial the way the designers had envisioned, you might not at first see the memorial at all. At the corner there is a large amoeba-shaped planter made of granite -- this was added late in the design as a security measure to keep vehicles from driving into the memorial (Washington is littered with these makeshift "bomber barriers").

Past the ugly planter you see a fake mountain, its whitish/pinkish color suggesting snow or a pile of rock salt. At the center of the mountain, a wide slice has been removed, and you are supposed to pass between the cleft, arriving at a plaza where the missing piece has been pushed toward the Tidal Basin. Walking around this monolith you will discover a 30-foot-tall sculpture of King, appearing uncharacteristically stern and authoritarian, coming out of the rock face. On one side of the monolith are carved the words: Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope....

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