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Martin Luther King Memorial: A 'Made In China' Design Comes To DC

First Posted: 08/12/11 05:16 PM ET Updated: 10/12/11 06:12 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- To the list of iconic American symbols made in China, we can now add the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial here on the National Mall.

Planners of the memorial, which opens to the public at the end of this month, will surely and rightly continue to be criticized for the selection of the sculptor Lei Yixin for the project. Lei's granite sculpture of King is some 30 feet tall and dominates the site, yet its stylization -- in particular the depiction of the folds and tails of King's jacket -- is largely in the vocabulary of Maoist China.

There are other issues with the memorial, set on the Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, too. The sculpture of King emerges from a larger chunk of granite, meant to symbolize a "stone of hope" separate from a "mountain of despair," but the light color of these granite fixtures contrasts too harshly with the darker green granite used on the inscription wall around them. That inscription wall, which features important quotations from King's life, is itself too derivative of Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

To be fair, the King Memorial has its strengths. It is admirably coherent, in a way the new World War II Memorial is not, and the landscaping elegantly surrounds and highlights the adjacent Tidal Basin. The inscriptions, set in a custom typeface designed by the stone carver Nick Benson, manage to convey both extraordinary gravitas and a modern energy. And the entire memorial is an improvement over what was on the spot before: a poorly designed road.

But the story here is one of a bizarrely managed process that managed to build a $120-million memorial to King, just not the one that he or we deserve. It all started in 1996, when President Clinton signed into law legislation proposing the memorial. Three years later, a major design competition was announced and, in 2000, the ROMA Design Group's proposal was selected as the winner.

By then, it may have already been too late for the memorial to ever turn out right. After all, ROMA's design was changed near the end of the competition to accommodate the preference of the jurors for King to be visually represented on the site.

Boris Dramov, the principal of ROMA, recalled in an interview that his original concept did not have such a sculpture of King, but "we at the end, to be perfectly honest, decided we'd rather show how we would bring a figurative sculpture of Dr. King to our design than end up with someone else doing it."

In the end, the worst possible choice was made: someone else's figurative sculpture of King was put on the ROMA design, a scheme that was stronger in the first place when it didn't have a sculpture at all. When the foundation building the memorial decided to hire another architect to finish the drawings for the plan ROMA had started, they told the original designers that they didn't need help picking a sculptor, selecting a granite or choosing quotations.

It turns out they needed help on the first two fronts. While the granite may have been a mistake from the start, it was mandated by the National Park Service, which is wary of marble sculptures that might deteriorate over time. Mieko Preston, one of the foundation's architects, said Lei was one of the only sculptors in the world who could work in granite at such a large scale.

This may be true, and his sculpture is in some ways a remarkable creation -- it is 159 pieces and was brought over from China by boat. But it's not the right sculpture for this particular site, and it's not the right memory of the man who, as one of the most poignant quotations reads, was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

Click through the slideshow below to see images of the memorial:

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

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