Years in the making, a permanent place now exists in our nation's capital for the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Located on the northwest edge of the Tidal Basin, the memorial site sits directly on axis with both the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin and with the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. This tribute to Dr. King is larger than just the man himself, and also celebrates and commemorates the ideas and goals that he stood for—freedom and justice—goals that are still being fought for today.

The Memorial Foundation was established to oversee this initiative, and in 1999, it launched an international competition to find a design architect, and then selected San Francisco–based Roma Design Group. However, the initial design concept had no lighting, which was problematic because the memorial would be open to the public both during daylight and non-daylight hours. So in February 2007, the foundation approached lighting designer David Mintz. Although the Foundation was aware that Mintz had retired the year before and closed his office, they knew that his experience and expertise from lighting the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials would serve the project well.

When Mintz had closed his practice, the few remaining projects that required see-through were turned over to lighting designer Randy Burkett. Because of the success of this arrangement, Mintz suggested that Burkett collaborate with him on the MLK project. And that is exactly what they did, developing a straightforward design that is exact yet unfussy, and creates an intimate setting for contemplation and honoring Dr. King's memory.

A view of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial during the day. The statue of Dr. King in the "Mountain of Despair" emerges from the "Stone of Hope" in the background.
Hoachlander Davis Photography A view of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial during the day. The statue of Dr. King in the "Mountain of Despair" emerges from the "Stone of Hope" in the background.


The design process involved an elaborate set of reviews with the Foundation, the National Park Service, the Fine Arts Commission, and the Capitol Board among others. Mintz and Burkett presented a number of options to the parties involved before the final lighting design scheme was decided on. Lighting such an important site, knowing that it would carry so much meaning for so many people, was an added pressure. “You have to detach yourself and say, ‘How do I solve what I perceive as being the technical and aesthetic challenges?' ” Burkett asks. “We wanted the lighting to help reinforce the experience of entering this memorial and to use light to help establish the mood and the atmosphere.”

The memorial site is organized into four areas: the forecourt, the Mountain of Despair, the Stone of Hope, and the Inscription Wall. Although one can approach the site from many directions, there is a sort of front “front-door” entry from along Independence Avenue.


Rendered lighting site plan indicates the areas of illumination.
Courtesy Randy Burkett Lighting Design Rendered lighting site plan indicates the areas of illumination.


  As you enter from the street corner, the court narrows in front of you. During the day, you are surrounded by a flat wash of the gray and creme-colored stone palette. At night, however, the entire site and the progression through the space is made that much more dramatic by the presence of light.


Visitors enter the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial through the "Stone of Hope."
Hoachlander Davis Photography Visitors enter the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial through the "Stone of Hope."
The "Stone of Hope" at night. Linear white-light LED fixtures line the underside of a concealed cove in the retaining wall along the forecourt walkway. 
Hoachlander Davis Photography The "Stone of Hope" at night. Linear white-light LED fixtures line the underside of a concealed cove in the retaining wall along the forecourt walkway. 


Linear white-light LED fixtures line the underside of a concealed cove in the retaining wall along the forecourt walkway. The minimal amount of illumination provides just enough light on the path surface to signal that one is about to enter a special place. The forecourt leads visitors to the obliquely lit “Mountain of Despair,” a masonry portal which serves as the principal threshold to the main feature of the site—the “Stone of Hope.” As you walk through the darker portal and continue your progression toward this massive block of granite and the tidal basin, along with a greater sense of more available light, you then turn back and discover the figure of Dr. King emerging from the solid mass. From this vantage point one understands that this “Stone of Hope” has emerged from the “Mountain of Despair.”

To light the silhouette of Dr. King as he looks out on the Tidal Basin and across to the Jefferson Memorial—as if he were on a stage—the lighting designers chose 150W T6 ceramic metal halide precision floodlights. The fixtures are mounted on two 45-foot-tall poles, one to each side of the sculpture, and include custom glare-shielding, and spread lenses and neutral density filters to optimize the beam distribution and light intensity. The decision to use a floodlight strategy came about after a number of mock-ups both off- and on-site. In order to render achieve the kind of facial expressions and definition of shadows that they wanted, the lighting designers knew that they had to set the light at a higher perch than the statue itself. Hence the poles, which are nestled into the cherry tree groves along the site. And while they are not completely invisible, they do not draw attention to themselves.

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial site at night.
Hoachlander Davis Photography The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial site at night.


After the experience of viewing the statue of Dr. King, visitors see this element in the larger context of the memorial and the long curving Inscription Wall that serves as the backdrop to the entire site. To the east side of Dr. King's statue, the angled Inscription Wall runs 235 feet; to the west side, it runs 190 feet. The height of the wall varies from just over 4-feet-tall at some points along the site to almost 12-feet-tall at other locations.

Embedded in the walls are 14 hand-carved inscriptions with quotations from Dr. King's speeches from 1955 to 1968 on the subjects of justice, democracy, hope, and love. Here, it was important to provide a wash of light on the stone surface but with enough illumination so that the quotations could be read, given the dimensionality of the chiseled cuts of the letters. Burkett and Mintz decided on a T5HO asymmetric luminaire concealed in an in-ground trough along the base of the wall. The lighting designers worked closely with the manufacturer, The Lighting Quotient, as they did with all of the selected manufacturers, to refine the fixture details for an absolutely perfect fit and best illumination appearance.

Section Detail at the Inscription Walls. T5HO asymmetric luminaires are concealed in an in-ground trough along the base of the wall to provide a wash of light on the stone surface above.
Courtesy Randy Burkett Lighting Design Section Detail at the Inscription Walls. T5HO asymmetric luminaires are concealed in an in-ground trough along the base of the wall to provide a wash of light on the stone surface above.
Given the unique setting of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the lighting designers were aware of how this project related to the city as a whole and the network of public spaces, monuments, and memorials along the National Mall and the Tidal Basin. “It's about the perspective view and getting the most from the contextual surroundings,” David Mintz says. “The lighting really leads you through the site and gives you a sense of place while still making you feel secure.”


Whereas the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials are all about lighting a statue within a structure, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial had a different goal. “It's not a memorial about the man per se,” Mintz says, “even though that is what it is called, but its really about the ideas. The lighting is careful not too be too overpowering.”

     

Details

Project: Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Client: The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Project Foundation, Washington, D.C.
Owner: The National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
Architect of Record and Construction Manager: McKissack & McKissack, Washington, D.C.
Lighting Designers: David Mintz in association with Randy Burkett Lighting Design, St. Louis, Mo.
General Contractors: Turner Construction Co., Arlington, Va.; Tompkins Builders Inc., Washington, D.C.; and Gilford Corp., Beltsville, Md.
Civil Engineers: Delon Hampton & Associates, Washington, D.C.
Landscape Architect: Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Washington, D.C.
Structural Engineer: Thorton Tomasetti, Washington, D.C.
M/E/P Engineer: TM/R Engineering, Arlington, Va.
Project Cost: $120 million
Lighting Cost: Not available
Project Size: Four-acre site

Manufacturers/Applications:
Bega
(150W T6 ceramic metal halide precision floodlights fitted with custom glare shielding, spread lenses and neutral density filters to optimize beam distribution and intensity)
Elliptipar, The Lighting Quotient (3500K T5HO asymmetric fluorescent luminaires modified with internal cross-baffles and factory-installed through-wiring, located in a concealed trough at the base of the Inscription wall)
Philips Color Kinetics (LED fixtures along entry plaza)
Winona Lighting (70W PAR ceramic metal halide fixtures in planting areas to highlight trees)