Muted but monumental: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Designed by maya lin in 1981, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial features more than 58,000 carved names of US military personnel.

Maya Lin’s impressive design continues to heal and inspire on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Could a single work of art heal the wounds opened by America’s longest war? Could one work of architecture stitch together a country's riven psyche? Could a controversial, even reviled, monument ever be accepted as a symbol by veterans and their families? How were we to honor those who gave their lives in a confusing mix of patriotism and grief?

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, is a 247-foot long “V” composed of two walls that meet at a 125-degree angle. Seventy reflective granite panels carry the names of the over 58,000 dead. Listed chronologically, the names run down almost to the ground as the walls slant from a height of 10 feet at the center into the earth 120 feet to either side. The memorial itself is cut from the land, so that when approached from the north it appears not to be there at all. And yet, its presence is manifest.

A somber commission, but a lively competition

The monument’s placement on the National Mall meant a host of reviews by various commissions and regulatory agencies, even if it was funded by private donations. The selection of Lin’s design, the subsequent roadblocks to getting the project to completion, and the eventual overwhelming embrace of the memorial is well known. But the memorial's success is arguably due to the early decision to select the monument by a contest, open to any American above the age of 18. Even though design competitions were held for the Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial, Americans have never been entirely comfortable with competitions. The Vietnam Memorial was the largest competition ever held and it was the epitome of a well-run one.

The key challenge for this and war memorials before has always been symbolizing the gravity of war and creating something meaningful for those who might seek out a sacred place to grieve, to commemorate, to protest, or to simply remember. Faced with such obstacles, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund contacted the AIA for professional help. The chair of the AIA's committee on competitions, Paul Spreiregen, an architect with considerable experience of European design contests, was chosen by the veterans' foundation as their professional advisor. Submissions were due in March 1981 and the completed memorial was dedicated on Armistice Day, 1982. A seven-person jury, which included architects Harry Weese and Pietro Belluschi, reviewed 1,432 blind entries.

The design that launched a career

The genius of Lin's design was two-fold. First, that she understood that the memorial's views to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial were just as important as the form of the monument itself. (Grady Clay, a journalist and chair of the jury, said when the winning design was made public, "Most of the memorial is already there. It's the site, and the vistas from it.") Second, she understood that the landscape is more than a host to a plinth. The landscape could be integral to the memorial. Lin, the hitherto unknown Yale University student from Athens, Ohio, wrote, "I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, with an initial violence and pain that in time would heal."

There were protests when the memorial was unveiled. Two dozen members of Congress wrote President Reagan, decrying the memorial “as a political statement of shame and dishonor.” Yet the rightness of Lin's design, and why it appealed to the jury, was its lack of overly forced symbolism. Also, its form half-buried in the earth recedes with commendable understatement; its black stone is in sharp contrast to Washington’s many white neo-classical monuments.

In 2007, the AIA awarded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with the Twenty-five Year Award, an honor for both Lin and architect of record, Cooper-Lecky Architects. Although it is a mere slice in the greater landscape of the Mall, this simple and daring design demonstrated that great architecture could heal as well as inspire.

William Morgan is an architectural historian and writer. He lives in Providence, RI.    

Image credits

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Getty Images

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