The National Mall's Monumental Mess

The recently dedicated MLK Memorial and the planned Eisenhower Memorial, in their designers' efforts to break from a classical idiom, reflect a failure to appreciate not only the heritage and history of the National Mall but also the origins of the very idea of the "monument."  As a result they confuse their audience and distract from the memory of the men they seek to honor.  Luckily, there is still time for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to go back to the drawing board.

Last week, the Martin Luther King Memorial was dedicated near the National Mall in Washington, on an axis between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.  Dr. King is the first civil leader and the first African-American to be honored in this way.  And (Jackie Kennedy's recently revealed criticism of King notwithstanding) he surely merits this profound honor.  Indeed, both the honorand and the setting call for a monument which ranks among the greatest memorials of the Mall.

But like Frank Gehry's design for the yet-to-be-built Eisenhower Memorial, the new memorial to Dr. King strays from the classical idiom of the capital's monumental landscape, leaving the viewer confused -- if not outright misled -- about the man it claims to commemorate.

The 30 foot tall Socialist-Realist colossus hewn by Chinese workers is executed in a style immediately familiar to anyone who has visited Tiananmen Square.  But it suits neither place nor person (the profoundly humble and American Dr. King), and fails to communicate effectively to its audience what King stood for and the significance of his contribution to the nation.  

Style must be appropriate to meaning and message. The idiom of the King Memorial befits a monument to the anonymous proletariat, if that's your cup of tea, but it seems a very odd style by which to commemorate one of the great civil leaders of our nation's history.  Gehry's much-debated plan to commemorate Eisenhower using 80 foot tall "silos" and stainless steel "screens" is perhaps stranger still.

For the idea of a "monument" (from the Latin monumentum) as it has come to us, and in the built environment of Washington, DC, in particular, is classical.  Monuments to individuals which actively seek to escape the supposed "arbitrariness" or "unoriginality" of classical form not only look out of place, but they fail to do their honorands justice.

Under fire from critics who favor a more classical form for Eisenhower's memorial, Gehry responded at a forum in the National Archives: "The Lincoln Memorial is in the form of a Greek temple.  What's that got to do with Lincoln?"

What Gehry and ROMA Design (the ironically named architecture firm behind the King Memorial) fail to realize is that it was in the classical Mediterranean world that the idea of public statuary and public monuments to honor great leaders and exceptional citizens originated.   It is not closed-mindedness that compels us to suggest that the King and Eisenhower Memorial designs are inapt: the tradition of public contribution followed by public recognition in this way was virtually unique to ancient Greece and Rome, and is bound up inextricably with our own nation's architectural, political and cultural heritage.  It is this tradition that we have received, and the classical idiom remains the lexis by which we are able to engage with honorific monuments.

In their attempts to find something more distinctive or exciting than classical formulations, the designers of the King and Eisenhower memorials actually let the question of the monument overwhelm the memory of the man.

The National Civic Art Society hosted a competition to show classical alternatives to Gehry's plan.  The results from this contest capture the myriad roles President Eisenhower played in taking America from war to peace and prosperity, just as Greek monuments were often able to highlight the varied realms in which an individual contributed to the community (as soldier, statesman, athlete, academic, diplomat, etc.).  But Gehry's proposal takes a form which is not only inappropriate, but distracting and irrelevant: these problems are only exacerbated by the massive scale of his plan

The scale and format of the King Memorial, meanwhile, echoes the one monument which classical Rome resented:  the Colossus of Nero.  Soaring 20-feet-tall (surpassing even the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol dome, which was previously the tallest statue in the District of Columbia) and combined with an embarrassing misquote of King's famous "drum major" speech, the massive relief turns Dr. King's words about humility on their head.

Ultimately, the King Memorial and the proposed Eisenhower Memorial reflect not only a failure to understand the nature of monuments, but perhaps a more general obfuscation of the classical tradition in the American education system and public realm.  The misappropriated quotation of Vergil's Aeneid at the new 9/11 Memorial in New York suggests the same in another monumental context.

The hallowed built environment of our National Mall mirrors our nation's heritage, history and highest ambitions.  Although the King Memorial has now been officially dedicated, there is time, at least, for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to go back to the drawing board.

Eric Wind is Chairman of the National Civic Art Society (, which organized the contest for alternatives to Gehry's Eisenhower Memorial plan.  Jack Carlson is an archaeologist and Clarendon Scholar at Oxford University.