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A Memorial Challenges Tradition
Prior to November 1982, the world had seen nothing quite like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that chevron of polished black granite embedded in the gently rolling landscape of the National Mall’s Constitution Gardens. A chthonic, even funereal form without a trace of ornament, the Vietnam memorial struck a novel contrast with the ethereal monuments in its vicinity.
The original concept for this minimalist memorial—minimalism representing a hyper-reductionist strand of modernist art that takes abstraction to an extreme—emerged in a blind competition won by a 21-year-old Yale architecture student, Maya Lin. Lin’s achievement with the Wall, as it is widely known, is particularly remarkable because it is essentially conceptual. There is no formal complexity in the Wall’s design, nothing that testifies to artistic competence in a traditional sense.
But the memorial’s appeal cuts across the all-too-familiar fault lines of education, social background, and party politics. It is the only modernist work that made the top ten in a highly-publicized 2007 American Institute of Architects public opinion poll ranking 150 American architectural works. Though the Wall’s popularity has faded somewhat as the memory of the war recedes, its cultural resonance is unsurpassed by any other postwar memorial, including Felix de Weldon’s U.S. Marine Corps Memorial on Arlington Ridge in Virginia and Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
These memorials attempt to embody (as with de Weldon’s Marines) or even update (Saarinen’s arch) the monumental tradition. This is what Lin’s memorial does not do. But it does not ignore that tradition, either. Unlike many a conceptualist oddity that pokes its finger in its neighbor’s eye, the Wall looks like it belongs where it is. Its tapering, 247-foot-long wings, each including 70 panels bearing the names of the fallen, align with the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, respectively. The vertex where the wings meet at a 125-degree angle is the design’s culminating element, the place where the Wall reaches its greatest depth—10 feet—and where the more than 58,000 names of the dead begin and end. It is the point to which we descend to confront the magnitude of the toll taken by the war.
The Wall’s appeal was by no means assured.Though the conceptual clarity of her competition entry won over a uniformly modernist jury of design professionals, Lin’s inadequate visual presentation made it harder for laymen—starting with Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF)—to visualize how her concept would play out in its Mall setting, let alone sense what the public reaction might be. The model of her memorial design that the VVMF promptly commissioned failed to resolve the legibility issue, Scruggs felt, because it did not photograph well. Even after ground was broken for the Wall in March 1982, the VVMF co-founder in charge of its construction, Robert Doubek, harbored serious doubts about the wisdom of carrying out Lin’s inevitably controversial design.
Lin is no shrinking violet, and her relations with the Fund during the tumultuous 18 months between her competition triumph and the Wall’s dedication were bound to be stormy. She knew nothing about the Vietnam War, and she never really forged a bond with the VVMF leadership. The Fund, on the other hand, was disturbed by both the racist slurs directed at Lin behind the scenes and by her seeming indifference to its concerns. The bottom line, however, was that the VVMF owned the winning design. The rift between it and Lin, who saw her status reduced to that of a $15-an-hour consultant, deepened in the months following the competition as she found herself increasingly out of the loop.
The media, however, remained largely sympathetic to the neophyte designer. For many editors and reporters, a memorial to a deeply controversial Southeast Asian war designed by a female Ivy Leaguer of Chinese descent just about qualified as a man-bites-dog story, but with the twist that Lin was cast in the role of misunderstood artist—misunderstood by right-wing politicians and angry vets who vilified her design as a “a black gash of shame and sorrow.”
Though the wall’s popularity has faded somewhat as the memory of the war recedes, its cultural resonance is unsurpassed by any other postwar memorial.
The VVMF’s main concern, in fact, was the group of politically well-connected Vietnam veterans who vehemently rejected Lin’s memorial concept. The Fund soon learned to its dismay that the press took a lively interest in the rekindling of wartime animosities that resulted. This guaranteed abundant publicity for its antagonists, who insisted on a traditional, honorific monument to their service. They campaigned relentlessly for an overhaul of Lin’s design that would have wrecked it. In the end their campaign yielded a compromise: a hybrid memorial—a precinct consisting of the Wall plus a realist bronze sculpture of three soldiers and a bronze flagpole decorated with the insignia of the armed forces, both situated in a leafy entry plaza about 40 yards from Lin’s memorial. (A second sculpture group with three nurses and a wounded soldier, at a distance from both the entry plaza and the Wall, was added in 1993. It was sponsored by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, not the VVMF.)
Lin bitterly opposed the compromise. As for the Wall, it is significantly different, both in its layout and in the way it is experienced, from her competition design, and others had a hand in the changes that contributed to its understated power and dignity. But these come into play at close quarters. The view of the Wall from the entry plaza is very much as Lin imagined it, though its wings are almost 25 percent longer than her competition design specified, and the descent to the vertex appreciably gentler as a result.
In her memoir, Boundaries (2000), Lin refers to the Wall as a monument. But she has also referred to it as an anti-monument in seeking to distinguish her work from traditional monuments. She has done so for two reasons. First, she sees such monuments as being didactic, as imposing specific messages on the viewer. She has said she does not want a memorial she designs to do that. Second, she is interested in creating not objects, which is what traditional monuments are, but environments. She is an environmental artist as much as an architect. In the statement she included in her entry in the 1981 competition organized by the VVMF, she called her memorial “a quiet place meant for personal reflection and private reckoning.” (Emphasis mine.)
Editors: Natalie Axton, Jim Uebbing
Fact Checker: Nick Davidson
Copy Editor: Cage Ames
Photographs: Catesby Leigh
Cover Image: Vietnam Veterans Memorial model, shown in January 1982. Photo: AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi