Thursday, September 08, 2011

After Seeing MLK Memorial, Clear that Architect Blew It Abbreviating the Quote

 Last week I listened to an NPR report on the critique of the design of the memorial - basically that a quote of MLK's was shortened and thus taken out of context and, in the words of Maya Angelou,  King was "made to look like an arrogant twit."

The memorial's executive architect, Ed Jackson Jr., is also interviewed.  He acknowledges Maya Angelou's greatness, says he owns some of her books, and that the quote was changed to a paraphrase based on time constraints.
"The statement that she made was very colorful and it  attracted the attention of the reader and that's what writers are supposed to do.  But I'm in the business of architecture and when we are faced to make design decisions, we have to do so with respect to a number of factors
  • size, 
  • shape,
  • distance,
  • perspective, 
  • height,  
  • depth, 
  • weight, 
  • size of letters, 
  • font style.
The message had to be communicated succinctly and then allow the visitor to come around and face Dr. King and have that once in a lifetime experience."
He goes on to talk about the other inscriptions at the monument and how this one isn't going to overpower all the others.  (You can listen to him at the NPR audio - starting at 1:28)

My initial reaction to architect Jackson was not positive.   Font?  Depth?  Did he really say all those things?  Was he serious?  Yes, those are factors, but his job is to make all those things work, not to use them as an excuse to rewrite the words of the man he's honoring.

I visited the Martin Luther King memorial on the Tidal Basin Tuesday.

Now that I've seen the memorial, I have no sympathy for Jackson whatsoever.  He just botched it big time.  Who is he to change King's words?  "Well," he might say, "the symmetry would be better if we left some of his qualifiers out."  (I'm not going to even discuss what was changed and how it affected the meaning.  You can go to the NPR post to see that.)

His idea about seeing those words just before seeing the statue itself?  Well, we came to the statue along the path where the cherry trees line the Tidal Basin, so we saw the statue before we saw the quotes.

OK, here's the main statue of King. 

Behind it is the official entrance through 'the mountains.'  But, as I said, we came from the Tidal Basin side.  On the left (as you look at the statue in the picture above)  are the words "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

The people are looking at the MLK likeness in the front.  That's the Jefferson Memorial on the other side of the Tidal Basin.

Then on the right side (facing the statute) is the controversial edited quote.

As you can see, there is plenty of room on this side of the monument.  He could easily have included four more lines.  He probably would say that it had to be two lines to match the "Mountain" quote on the other side.  He didn't say that, but why else would he have cut it short?  As I said, and you can see, there's plenty of room.  Or he could have used a different quote on this side or the other side so they'd match. 

To put this into a different context, at the nearby Lincoln Memorial the wall to the right of Lincoln has three panels with Lincoln's Second Inaugural Speech.

On the left side (facing Lincoln) is the Gettysburg Address.  It's only one panel.  But that didn't cause the designer's of the Lincoln Memorial to edit the 2nd Inaugural to match the Gettysburg Address.

If it's good enough for Lincoln, I'd say it's ok for Martin Luther King, Jr.

I usually try to see the different sides of a controversy and to understate the situation and let the readers come to their own conclusions.  But in this case it is so completely clear that the architect Jackson's defense of his rewriting of King's words is just mealy mouthed weaseling to justify the unjustifiable.  He was so consumed with his technical issues, that he completely missed the much bigger issue.  This is a monument to MLK, and MLK's original words, in context, and not some abbreviated version to 'fit' what Jackson thought was the proper visual style. 

Oh yes, the other quotes.  They're good.  And the wall they are on shows us how much influence Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial Wall has influenced how we think of memorials.

Here are a couple of the quotes that it would do us well to consider and discuss regularly.

Of course, there's always the possibility that I missed something. That he gave NPR a much better reason than font size and distance etc. for what he did it. But it really sounds like damage control.


  1. Nice post. I think I agree with you and Angelou about the misquote. My reaction to my first view here of the memorial is that I don't like it generally. I don't like the sculpture but the entrance through the "mountains" is interesting. The wall is unoriginal. Have architects in the family so this will bring forward a family discussion.

  2. I agree also. I hope that the current quotation can eventually be hammered away and the full quotation placed there.

    I would rather have seen his "I have been to the mountaintop" from his final speech placed there.


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