Cultural Bytes for 15 January, 2012

- January 17, 2012

"MLK Redux..."

MLK Redux
Barely six-months old, the Martin Luther King Memorial, on the Tidal Basin between the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial in D.C., will have its first makeover. There will be no “Driver move that bus” involved and no phalanx of volunteers wearing tacky “Extreme Makeover” vests to witness the demo, redo or reveal, in the vernacular of that extremely popular reality TV show. However, this redo certainly does involve “reality.” You see, a controversial quote inscribed in the granite of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will be corrected. The so-called "drum major" quote inscribed on one side of the 30-foot statue of King, arms folded across his chest, emerging from a "Stone of Hope" is an abbreviated and paraphrased version of his words and sparked controversy last summer, when acclaimed poet and author Maya Angelou said it made the civil rights leader appear to be arrogant.

The line reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has given the National Park Service 30 days to consult with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, members of the King family and others to decide on a more accurate version of the quote.

King's original words, from a 1968 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, were: "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter."

The quote was, I am told, shortened to fit the space available on the massive piece of granite. Once a fitting substitute is agreed upon, artisans with chisels in hand will remove the current text and replace it with the newer version – not exactly as easy as swiping text on your screen, choosing a new font size and clicking your mouse to “replace.” Now, about those hands on the chisels – will they be American or Chinese? Another tempest around the MLK Memorial is that of the nationality of the artist chosen to design the memorial. The artist chosen to carve the statue was a Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin. No qualms there on my part. The Medici family often chose artists who were not Italian to bring their Renaissance dreams to fruition.

And, speaking of paraphrasing:

Honored at last, honored at last, thank God Almighty, honored at last.

Years before Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao transformed that somber industrial town in Spain’s Basque country into an instantly-recognizable icon of contemporary architecture, the architect had transformed his modest salmon-pink Dutch colonial in Santa Monica, California into an architectural icon of the modern era. At least in the eyes of the American Institute for Architects, which recently announced the Gehry residence as the recipient of its Twenty-five Year Award, recognizing buildings whose relevance and impact on architecture endure for more than 25 years.

Of course this award pales in comparison to the Pritzker Prize, National Medal of Arts and 1999 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, all of which Gehry has already received, but might, at long last, overcome the raging criticism he and his wife received in 1977, when he wrapped his home on three sides with the rawest of materials — jagged panels of corrugated metal, plywood and chain link fencing — transforming it into a symbol of de-constructivist architecture (see picture above).

I am personally well-acquainted with the wrath of fellow citizens when it comes to the relevance of contemporary architecture in an otherwise unchanging urban setting. I stood alone in hoping for a contemporary solution to Santa Fe’s need for a new convention center almost a decade ago. I thought my solution of how to insert a contemporary architectural choice into the streetscape of downtown Santa Fe was both clever and original and sure to please everyone involved. I suggested commissioning Frank Gehry (who had just spoken here as part of Art Santa Fe) to design a wonderfully exciting building for the Marcy Street location – all titanium and curvilinear surfaces, and then, we could spray the whole thing with stucco and everybody would be happy. My fellow citizens were not amused.