Two Perspectives on MLK Memorial

In 1999, Jaan Holt accepted a request from the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity to organize a competition for a memorial to one of the fraternity’s most well-recognized members, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holt, a Virginia Tech alumnus, professor in the university’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies, and director of the Washington Alexandria Architecture Center (WAAC), assembled a WAAC-based team and devoted the next year to getting the best proposals from around the world organized for the competition jury’s consideration.

The chair of that jury, Ed Jackson Jr., DArch, would also serve as the executive architect throughout the design development and construction of the MLK Memorial, which was dedicated October 16, 2011

Here the two men speak to Inform of a few recollections from an 11-year, sometimes tumultuous journey from concept to conclusion of a new and significant national memorial.

Dr. Ed Jackson, fourth from right, stands with sculptor Lei Yixin, center with open safety vest, and his team of stone masons. Photo by Cliff Li.

Prof. Holt, what was your involvement in the early stages of the MLK Memorial?

Holt: I’ll give you a feeling for it. The call for entries went out near the beginning of 2000, so it was before the age of the full Internet. The mailer was a poster with all the information about the competition, and it went out worldwide. We were funded with a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and we gave them a pretty good return on their investment.

Then we mailed out the packets to everyone who registered. That was a huge effort by Virginia Tech. It was a first-rate job, even though I’m biased. I’ve seen many competition packages, and this one was top-drawer and graphically beautifully assembled with the participation of Professor Henry Hollander and Graduate Assistant Daryl Wells.

The submissions were a sight to see. More than 900 of them—each presented on three 30×40-inch boards—filled Washington’s Verizon Center. And the jury of international architects spent three days looking at these boards. They couldn’t make a decision but cut it down to about 25. We made digital copies of those for each of the jurors, and they went home. I don’t know if they conversed among themselves in the interim, but they reassembled about a month later and decided on the ROMA Design Group of San Francisco.

We were very happy with the submissions. They were from everywhere in the world. And there were no jokes or negative submissions of any kind, which is surprising. I’ve been involved with a lot of competitions, and you get entries that are basically snide remarks on what is being memorialized. But there was nothing like that. Everybody was wholeheartedly behind it.

Did you stay involved in the project after the jury had made its decision?

Holt: We did not. However, Virginia Tech was involved during the site selection. We identified one empty space near the FDR Memorial, and when a line is drawn from Lincoln to Jefferson it passes right through that point. So it was divine intervention that there happened to be a big enough site in an ideal location.

Is the memorial as built similar to the original design concept?

Holt: The built memorial is very similar to the ROMA design that the jury selected. The only difference is that the enveloping berm was much more elaborate, with water running over the words and a walk on top of the berm that contained commemorations of other individuals. The Fine Arts Commission immediately eliminated that idea because you can’t just add other people to the Mall without due process.

Is there anything you would change?

Holt: Pedestrian access is a little difficult. Maybe the D.C. World War I Memorial renovation nearby will inspire the Park Service to make a stronger pedestrian connection between the Mall and Tidal Basin.

One thing I wouldn’t change has to do with the criticism that the sculpture is figurative. One reviewer said that the presence of Dr. King would have been fine if it were just a cube of stone, as FDR had requested for his own memorial. I personally believe that the figurative effort is correct because sometimes in history the individual human being is crucial. A figurative effort was correct for Lincoln and Jefferson, and it is correct for King.

Are there any other thoughts you have on the memorial?

Holt: I’m very happy with how generously they used the stone, unlike the Vietnam Memorial where it’s way too thin. I also think that it’s unfortunate that an important quotation was modified. I think the people overseeing the memorial ought to re-carve the quotation. It wouldn’t be too difficult, and it should be done.

Dr. Jackson, are you yourself pleased with the result of your many years of work?

Jackson: It is fair to say that I had my share of criticism for decisions I have made over the scope of the project, but I never capitulated to something that I did not believe to be in the best interest of the memorial. That being said, obviously I am pleased, very pleased.

Is there anything you would have changed if you could?

Jackson: If I could, I would like to provide visitors the opportunity to hear the voice of Dr. King as part of their memorial experience. The persuasive nature of his oratory lies both in his eloquent choice of words, as well as the sounds and rhythms of his voice and delivery. We are having discussions now with the National Park Service regarding how this can best be achieved.

What elements of wisdom helped guide you through this long, sometimes contentious process?

Jackson: Wisdom is acquired over time, and there are many tidbits I could share, but four things come to mind.
• The authority to act is not the same as having the power to act.
• Power is not absolute … sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t.
• Success is more often determined by how effective you are in accomplishing your mission without power.
• Without power, I relied upon “situational management” techniques of collaboration, consensus, command, and control.

I relied on my professional experiences and judgment to determine which technique would serve me best at any one point in time.

As an architect, do you think you were more able than most to pull away from the exigencies of the moment to offer a longer-term vision of how this memorial will be visited and experienced over time?

Jackson: The role of the executive architect was more strategic than tactical. The planning/design process was impacted, positively and negatively, by a community of stakeholders, each with his or her own set of goals and interests, viewpoints, and conceptual ideas.

We encountered conflicting viewpoints and recommendations throughout the process. These were very challenging at times, but the way out was always clear to me because of my determination to protect the original mission of the memorial. The real challenge was convincing a sizable majority of the stakeholders involved to go along with the decisions made.

Consider it this way: A lifeguard would find it very difficult to instruct a drowning man on how to swim to shore. Therefore, at that crucial moment in saving a life, he does what he has been trained to do. The results speak for themselves.

Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?

Jackson: This memorial is about Dr. King’s vision of America and what she was destined to become: a country of immigrants living under one Constitution, one flag, one government, one rule of law with equal rights and access for everyone residing within her borders. Also keep in mind, this memorial will exist beyond any current generation and therefore must carry with it Dr. King’s message for all humankind in any country anywhere regarding the equal and just treatment of everyone.

The vision forged early in the process was to make this a living memorial and not a monument to a man in our history. We concluded that the memorial had to provide the opportunity to share Dr. King’s passion, conviction, and commitment to America. I am referring to America as both a country and a construct. And in both scenarios, America has yet to realize its true potential fully. It was our hope that the memorial could somehow speak metaphorically to future generations about the importance of peace, justice, democracy, hope, and love.

This memorial is as much about America as it is about Dr. King. The memorial speaks to the spirit of America—about who we are as a people, about how far we have come as a nation, about what we hold sacred, about what we believe in, and about what we are willing to die for in order to preserve and protect the freedom, democracy, justice, and liberty we possess as citizens of this great country.

Our goal was to make a memorial that would inspire others to take up the unfinished business left behind by Dr. King; to inspire future generations all over the world to work tirelessly in carrying forward and implementing his vision for America and the world.

Two of my favorite quotations begin this way:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.