Uncommon Monument: A King Memorial for Boston
In a provocative, wide-ranging discussion on November 14, a panel of architects and designers examined “the shifting landscape of public remembrance’’ at a forum considering a new memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King proposed for the Boston Common.
The privately funded KingBoston committee has been working for over a year to develop a community consensus around such a memorial, its siting and program. This public forum, sponsored by the BSA Foundation and the Boston Society of Architects/AIA, was the design community’s opportunity to delve into this complex topic.
Five design teams have been chosen as finalists for the memorial to the two civil rights leaders, who met as students in Boston in the 1950s. But the evening’s discussion, moderated by Renée Loth Hon. BSA, ArchitectureBoston’s editor, was not a critique of the individual designs. Rather it was a broader consideration of the role memorials play in society. The City of Boston’s new chief of arts and culture, Kara Elliott-Ortega, began the evening with a framing statement about the power of representation in public monuments, and how Boston’s history has been incompletely told through its commemorative sculptures. “What does it look like to represent our full story,” she asked, “told by indigenous and black and brown voices?”
Questions of representation wove through the discussion. Each of the five panelists have worked on memorials of one sort or another: Meejin Yoon AIA is developing a memorial to enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia, for example, and the artist Steve Locke designed a memorial to Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody in Maryland, on the façade of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum.
Other panelists – Max Page of UMass Amherst, Scheri Fultineer ASLA of the Rhode Island School of Design, and Ian Taberner AIA of the Boston Architectural College spoke of alternatives to the monumental “great man on a horse” so familiar to Boston’s historic sites. Yoon described the quiet power of German stolpersteine: (‘stumbling stones’) – small plaques embedded into streets, marking the last known addresses of Nazi victims. Such “distributed memorials’ are an effective way to trigger remembrance because they are unexpected – observers literally ‘stumble upon’ them.” Taberner suggested finding a way to link Boston’s neighborhoods along the path of a march King took from Lower Roxbury to the Common in 1965, calling for an end to school segregation.
After a thoughtful series of questions from the audience, the evening closed with inspiring words from Marie St. Fleur, executive director of the KingBoston project, who recalled rarely feeling welcomed on the Boston Common in her youth as a person of color. The memorial to the Kings, she said, was a chance to “bring everyone to the table” as Boston strives to design a more inclusive public realm.