Sat, Nov 19, 2005 - Page 19 News List

New York architect builds monument to Muhammad Ali


Architect Lee Skolnick took on a heavyweight assignment eight years ago -- create a building worthy of commemorating the life and ideals of Muhammad Ali.

Skolnick said he wanted the design to "tell this incredible story" -- of a man who grew up amid segregation and went on to boxing glory while becoming an outspoken voice during tumultuous times in America. Skolnick's vision is nearly complete near the Ohio River in Ali's hometown of Louisville.

This weekend, a star-studded lineup including Bill Clinton, Jim Carrey and Angelina Jolie will gather to celebrate the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center. The center will promote Ali's humanitarian goals as well as relive his exploits as a three-time heavyweight boxing champion.

Now nearing completion, the Ali Center has become Skolnick's crowning achievement.

"There's been nothing that's been more important to me, including designing my own house," said Skolnick, whose New York City-based firm played a major role in the architectural and exhibit design of the 93,000-square-foot center.

Skolnick, in a recent phone interview, said famous images were incorporated into the design.

The roof was made to resemble a butterfly -- a reference to the champ's self-description of his boxing skills: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

Part of the center looks like a giant torch, meant to evoke the image of Ali lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Ali also was a gold medalist at the 1960 Olympics.

Still, Ali didn't want to the center to be about him, Skolnick said.

"Muhammad, for all his bravado, is actually a very humble guy," Skolnick said.

Skolnick said he hopes the center inspires generations of visitors by promoting Ali's ideals to respect yourself and others, and to stand up for your beliefs.

"What I'm after is for a child to go there, to be inspired by these rich stories that are part of Muhammad's life, and to come out thinking, `It's not a far-fetched idea for me to achieve something great, on my own terms,'" Skolnick said.

For Skolnick, it was the assignment of a lifetime. He dug into Ali's, and the country's, past to get a better feel for Ali's life and times.

Skolnick spent time visiting sports hall of fames and presidential libraries to see how they celebrated individual achievements. He spoke with people who lived in Louisville while Ali grew up to get a better sense of what life was like for a young black man in that era. He spoke with experts on the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War, sports ethics and faith.

Skolnick also spent considerable time with Ali.

"He's the most fun person to be around," he said. "You just feel like there's no place else on earth you want to be when you're with him."

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