18 May 2008

Yet another MLK Memorial controversy

For some time now the proposed MLK Memorial in Washington has been meeting some resistance. It isn't that people think there shouldn't be a memorial, or that people are objecting to the moderately prominent location near the FDR. Instead, some are objecting to the style of the sculpture that is being proposed as a centerpiece of the memorial.

Back in December, NPR ran a great piece on the brewing controversy, but we mentioned it even earlier. It even seems to change a little every time it comes up. First the problem was the size. Then it was the nationality of the artist (Chinese) and the material (Chinese granite). Now it is the style of the representation (Social Realist).

Some proponents of public participatory design look at these processes and see them improving the nature of the dialogue and potentially the final outcome. I tend to agree in principal, but the outcomes of previous debates leave me quite concerned. Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial survived pretty well but had a set of sculptures tacked on in a way that remains awkward decades later. The Korean didn't fare nearly as well through the process. And, as the MLK Memorial weblog points out, even the WWII was greeted coldly by critics. But they don't point out that the controversy was resolved by building something that many still consider an eyesore and that might age so inelegantly as to leave it at risk in a generation. Let's hope that the MLK memorial becomes something solid and memorable and treasured instead of an interesting relic.

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