The most recent addition to Washington’s silent city of civic and national monuments and memorials, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial offers views of monuments to Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Many of these monuments—framed by nature and organized along view corridors—are landscaped at a disadvantage to pedestrians approaching from other than a specific direction. The approach to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, however, is open and embracing, perhaps most similar to the path of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which allows for entry from either end.

On the day I visited, a group of young black students gathered, each one waiting to touch the stone of the memorial statue, to touch King’s words, or to have their photos taken with his monument.  I felt a sense of pilgrimage in the plaza, which ushers visitors in through three paths: two flanking walls and a third splitting the rock face of the “mountain of despair” and urging visitors forward to the “stone of hope.”

At nearly six stories tall, the figure of King has the monumental stature of the nearby Jefferson and Lincoln monuments. The significance of the first black national hero in the city of monuments cannot be captured by the stony literalness of his depiction alone. But the figure does overshadow the movement for which King served as a figurative symbol. The historic march on Washington is nowhere depicted or conveyed by the MLK Memorial. How could that be?

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the mounting toll of the Vietnam War is communicated viscerally in the accounting of the names of those lost. And at the Korean War Memorial, the reflections and fading impressions etched in stone relief are backdrop to the figurative statues of soldiers on a battlefield. The Unification and Emancipation murals in the Lincoln Memorial and the reliefs of workers in a bread line in the Roosevelt Memorial serve to convey the same sense of community and loss—and triumph.

Even with speeches reduced to fragments and his words somewhat denuded in the appeal to a broad public, the quotes of King remain profound. Still, behind the symbol of the man is the work done by the many, and the work remaining to be done by future generations.

Yolande Daniels is a founding design principal of the architecture partnership studioSUMO, which has offices in the United States and Japan. She has taught architecture at a number of universities, including the Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.

Other opinions about the memorial:
Mabel O. Wilson, an associate professor in architecture at Columbia University’s GSAPP.