Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial

Added on by Timothy Brown.

The lukewarm to negative reviews of the newly dedicated memorial and yesterday's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday made me think about our competition entry for the memorial in 2000. From our submission:

Our proposal calls for extensive fill thereby raising the ground level along this same line to a high point of 5m near the site’s centroid, thereby effectively inverting the site’s “natural” declination. From the new rise the fill then tapers to the northern and western confines while forming an embankment falling to a long retaining bench backing a traprock paved surface which echoes the arc of the basin’s edge and the grove of cherry trees. The two significant structures and the major hard surfaces are, consequently, peripheral leaving the large central grassed area programmatically vacant. The resulting topography and evacuation of programmed use-space at the site’s center serves to slough off the obsessively cast network of axial delineations and suppress the normative centripetal monumentalism of Washington. Two continuous rows of tall, fragrant loblolly pines, one running along Independence Drive and another along the western access road to the define the memorial precinct. A row of low dense crab apple trees parallels the loblollies on the west while an existing stand of dogwoods will remain along a section of Independence.

We are proposing two structures; the first of which is a trellis made of lightweight steel and skinned pine poles, planted with wisteria, that runs along the entire northern edge filtering, with the adjacent loblollies and dogwoods, the movement and traffic noise on Independence while providing for views south across the site to the tidal basin. The second structure, covalent to the trellis, is a low ribbon of very large and solid sections of cast glass running north to south along the western side of the site for its entire length. Embedded within the glass block castings are display screens for video and film programming.

The majority of visitors will encounter the opalescent glass structure entering into the memorial after passing beneath the line of loblollies. The low, wide run of cast glass, a translucent horizontal counter to the massive vertical opaque  materiality of the surrounding monuments, is illuminated by the evanescent video and film images being shown on the embedded screens.  The glass sections will be cast off the ground at particular sites that carry great significance to the historical narrative of the movement, thus commemorating in a quiet way its origins in the “local” and the fugitive immediacy of “place”.

As always, not winning was a disappointment but in this case it was doubly so since the approach selected reverted to a mostly stale idea about a monument and not a memorial. Many thanks to Ellen Grimes, who developed all the really good ideas in our project.