Page C1.1 . 26 October 2011                     
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Postcard from West Potomac Park

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Designed by ROMA Design Group, the memorial features a 30-foot- (nine-meter-) tall statue of Dr. King on the face of a rough granite block, named the Stone of Hope, that stands a few dozen feet beyond the larger block of stone from which it was cut, representing the Mountain of Despair. Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images

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The new national memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., in Washington, D.C., overlooks the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, adjacent to the core area of the National Mall Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images

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The main plaza of the memorial, facing south onto the Tidal Basin, is defined on the north, mall side by a sweeping arc of inscribed granite wall. Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images

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Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin created the stone relief of Dr. King at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images


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"Light, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."

— Martin Luther King Jr.

Dear ArchitectureWeek,

More than 10,000 people thronged around the U.S. national memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday, October 16, 2011, as the new monument was dedicated by President Barack Obama.

It is beautifully sited, with Dr. King, standing half-emerged from the great block of stone, gazing both at the visitors who behold him, and farther too, out across the Tidal Basin toward the Jefferson Memorial. A little farther around the Tidal Basin, near the south extent of West Potomac Park, is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.

The great statue of Dr. King emerging from the rock is the strong centerpiece of the memorial. Also important, and very moving, is the great arc of inscribed granite that bounds the inland edge of the large interior plaza of the memorial. With Dr. King's powerful, evocative words quoted on it, this great sweep of stone indeed seems to curve itself toward justice.

I saw person after person — teenagers, families, couples — pose and be photographed in turn, alongside King's words in granite.

The metaphor of the great split block of stone, through which one enters from the street, remains somewhat forced (or perhaps lost) to this observer — although glimpsing Jefferson through the entry cleft is priceless. The symbolic scrape marks on the great stone seem contrived, while the crafting of the stone overall seems overly stylized, apparently with a Chinese representational flavor. And a few inappropriately mangled words on the stone side of the great statue are clearly a bit off-key. Perhaps they can be corrected in time.

Yet a few off notes here and there cannot stand against the overall great glory of this new station in the pantheon of the national mall. Dr. King's true words, and the stature of his likeness, carry power and forthrightness that resounds.

The Washington Post describes how many in the dedication audience "recounted stories of bitter racial oppression experienced in their youth. Many said they never believed a monument to a man like King would be erected."

And yet it has.

Like the monuments to other great leaders, from Jefferson to Lincoln, and beyond, the new MLK Memorial connects with a sense of greatness, of difficult times in history, and amazing contributions made in those times. The MLK Memorial is touched with the glow of another level of pride, in the courage, and evolution, and reconciliation, and love, that it took for this new monument to be built, there, at all.

As such, it is much more than just a thing, space, or place. It focuses and funnels in a big, vibrant, intensely harmonic constituent of our complex living culture.

Again in the words of the Washington Post, "The crowd joined in as the president stood before the memorial's three-story granite statue of King and, arms locked with the arms of others, sang the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome."

The greatest, most deeply satisfying dimension of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is that it now exists, with great dignity, and well-earned pride of place.

However far we have yet to go — as evidenced by our current times — let it help us remember how very far we have already come.

Somewhere along the banks of the Potomac,

Kevin Matthews
Editor in Chief

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