A conceptual design for a war memorial prioritizes the individual over the community, upending a centuries-old architectural language.
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.”
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.)
Maya Lin was born in 1959 and raised in the college town of Athens in southeastern Ohio, near the Appalachian Mountains. Her parents had emigrated to America to escape the Communist revolution in China. Her father was a ceramicist who chaired the art department at Ohio University, where her mother was a professor of literature. Lin grew up in a tight-knit family, insulated from the political tumult triggered by the Vietnam War and far removed from any connection to military life.
According to a 2002 New Yorker profile, Lin did not begin studying architecture until her junior year at Yale. During the fall semester of her senior year, she took a studio course on funerary architecture taught by Andrus Burr, a practicing architect. Word of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition arrived while the course was underway, and Burr assigned the memorial as a design project.
At Yale, as at many colleges and universities, traditional war memorials are prominently situated in the heart of the campus. Lin mentions only one in her memoir. She recalls running her fingers along the names of alumni who fell in Vietnam after they were inscribed in stone in Yale’s Memorial Hall. Built at the turn of the last century, Memorial Hall is a circular, domed structure situated at the juncture of perpendicular wings, one housing a spacious refectory, the other a concert hall. Panels bearing the names of Yale men killed in the nation’s wars are flanked by honorific male and female figures—Peace, Devotion, Memory, and Courage—carved in deep relief.
The Memorial Hall ensemble encloses a plaza with a fine monument to the university’s World War I dead. This monument has a lot to tell us about the tradition with which Lin parted ways in designing the Vietnam memorial. It is a cenotaph, mainly classical in style. Its decoration, however, betrays Art Deco’s influence in its flattened relief and inclusion of implements of modern warfare such as artillery, machine guns, helmets and a tank.
A cenotaph is a symbolic tomb, a tomb in which nobody lies. The Yale cenotaph takes the form of a table-top tomb, which has a very ancient lineage. Tombs emerged as the principal monument type long before the dawn of history. They provide vital clues as to what a monument is. Certainly the derivation of the term’s Latin cognate, monumentum, from the verb moneo does not readily indicate its significance as a conspicuous component of the built environment. The meanings of moneo include “bring to the notice of,” “remind,” “advise,” and, last but not least, “warn.” Also noteworthy is the related Sanskrit verb manayati, which has a complementary meaning: “have regard to” or “honor.” Moneo suggests verbal communication while manayati refers to conduct. But the definition of moneo, “to warn,” combined with the meaning of the Sanskrit verb, points to the original meaning of “monument” in its physical sense.
To understand why, one must take account of the cult of the dead —specifically, dead ancestors—that shaped many prehistoric cultures. For much of prehistory ancestors lived their after-lives not in some distant empyrean or underworld but in tombs, and required offerings of food and drink tied to an onerous regimen of ritual devotions. If the dead did not receive their due, mayhem must ensue. The tomb thus served precisely “to warn” those bound to this primitive cult: they must “have regard to” and “honor” their ancestors according to the ancient rituals. “We are here among you,” the tomb silently proclaimed. “Feed us. Pour out libations to us. Worship us. Otherwise we will blight your crops and plague your kindred.”
The tomb, then, lay at the center of the life of the family or tribe. This was the original community, long antedating the political community. The family was not a community of the living only. It was a community of the dead, the living, and those yet to be born. It existed to perpetuate the ancestral worship. The ancient tomb’s function, moreover, was not essentially commemorative. That is because the monument, in its purest, most ancient sense, is not about memory. It’s about presence. The prehistoric tomb embodied the presence of the dead in the lives of the living.
The prehistoric cult of the dead was marginalized by the advent of more complex urban societies. Mere vestiges remained by Cicero’s time. One essential characteristic of that cult that did endure, however, is the idea that the civic or religious community binds the dead as well as the living and those yet to be born in a kind of perpetual trust. The corollary is that the community that denies the presence of its past—that is, the aspects of its past worthy of reverence and emulation—is doomed.
From this corollary springs the instinctive understanding that monuments should be emphatically spatial structures—as were the prehistoric dolmens, stone circles (Stonehenge, for example) and tumuli or burial mounds. Such structures are experienced in the round, rather than as flat, two-dimensional forms like the wings of Lin’s chevron. From prehistoric times this spatial characteristic has been essential to the heightened sense of presence, and thus of separateness from the commonplace, that monuments convey.
The monument’s role expanded over time, especially after the development of formal canons in architecture and sculpture during the archaic and classical periods in Greece. It continued to instill reverence for the dead while proclaiming the presence of god, savior, saint, hero, champion, benefactor, or military triumph in the life of the community. Classical monument types—tombs, arches, statues, circular tholos shrines, obelisks—are themselves emphatically spatial as a rule. Monumental qualities also were imparted to institutional buildings, both religious and civic, and as a result those buildings and the purposes they serve assumed an august presence in the public realm.
A true monument—and I am not speaking here of institutional buildings that can be described as monumental—automatically qualifies as a memorial. The Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials in Washington are monuments, for example. But not all memorials qualify as monuments. “Memorial,” after all, is a very elastic concept. Roadside shrines at the sites of fatal car crashes are memorials. The Book of Common Prayer refers to the Eucharistic rite as “the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make.” Countless memorials exist nowadays only in cyberspace. Memorials, in short, need not be physical entities. And even if they are, their function need not be strictly commemorative, as with “living memorials” like auditoriums, highways, bridges, parks, or airports.
The word “monument,” for its part, is sometimes used in an un-monumental sense, as with designation of wilderness areas, coastal reserves or historically significant sites as national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906. There is nothing monumental, for example, about the building that once housed the bus station in Anniston, Alabama. But in 1961 Freedom Riders were confronted there by a segregationist mob, and President Obama recently designated it a monument for that reason.
In a new volume devoted to her life’s work, Topologies, Lin says she was impressed, at the time that she was working on her competition submission, by the Yale architecture historian Vincent Scully’s discussion, during a seminar, of the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme outside the little village of Thiepval in northern France. This monument’s brilliant designer, the English classicist Sir Edwin Lutyens, reacted at a deeply poetic level to the horrific scale of slaughter in World War I. He reworked the triumphal arch into a novel, more dynamic and dimensional form imbued with a distinctly tragic grandeur. The memorial’s sixteen piers provided space for the listing of the more than 72,000 British, South African, and West Indian servicemen whose bodies were never recovered.
Lutyens’s Somme memorial is supremely monumental, dramatically embodying the presence of the dead in the lives of the living. But it departs from the triumphal typology in eschewing any prescriptive meaning such as that conveyed by the Yale cenotaph, whose design highlights this inscription:
In memory of the men of Yale who, true to her traditions,
gave their lives that freedom might not perish from the earth
1914 - Anno Domini - 1918
That is a specific message, reinforced by the cenotaph’s entirely honorific, richly ornamented design. Lutyens’s memorial honors the dead in more exclusively formal, abstract terms. But the presence of the dead isn’t what impressed Lin about Scully’s discussion, which she credits with influencing the remarkably effective statement she would include in her competition entry. It was his description of the experience of the Somme memorial as (in Lin’s words) a “journey towards an awareness of loss.”
The listing of names of the dead represents the obvious link between Yale’s Memorial Hall, Lutyens’s monument and Lin’s wall, and yet the controversy over the Vietnam memorial would reveal that the mere listing of names in a minimalist design context could easily be taken for a disqualifying defect rather than a virtue.
The Vietnam memorial’s original proponent was Jan Scruggs, co-founder and until 2015, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
Scruggs was born in 1950 and grew up in suburban Prince George’s County, Maryland, the son of a milkman and a waitress, and enlisted in the Army upon graduating from high school. As a rifleman in the 199th Infantry Brigade, Scruggs saw his share of blood and guts during a year-long tour of duty in Vietnam. Half of his company was killed or wounded, and he himself was wounded early in his tour.
For Scruggs and many other Vietnam veterans, the trauma of war was aggravated by the callous indifference or outright hostility they experienced after their return to civilian life. Discharged as a corporal, Scruggs went back to school and eventually became an authority on post-traumatic stress disorder, though he made his living as a Department of Labor bureaucrat until he was able to devote himself fully to the memorial project. Scruggs took up the idea of a Vietnam memorial—always with the intention that it would include the names of the dead—in the belief that it would help repair the psychic wounds inflicted by the war and its aftermath.
The core leadership of the VVMF, founded after an April 1979 conclave of Vietnam veterans in Washington, was a troika including Scruggs; Doubek, who had served as an Air Force intelligence officer in Vietnam; and John Wheeler, a West Pointer and non-combat Vietnam vet with graduate degrees from Harvard and Yale. Neither Scruggs nor Doubek knew much about art; Wheeler, however, had been the guiding light for a low-key, landscape-oriented Southeast Asia war memorial at the Point.
The key Congressional supporters for the memorial project were the liberal Republican senator Charles Mathias of Maryland—who drafted the legislation that secured the two-acre Constitution Gardens site, superbly located near the Lincoln Memorial—and another Republican senator, John Warner of Virginia. The VVMF, which was to build the memorial with private donations and then convey ownership to the National Park Service, set Veteran’s Day, 1982 as the memorial’s dedication date. Texas billionaire and future presidential candidate Ross Perot, himself an Annapolis graduate, contributed $160,000 for the memorial competition. Perot would turn out to be a formidable opponent of Lin’s design and the Fund.
Washington’s official design-review boards made it plain from the outset that an imposing vertical mass at the designated site was out of the question. To defer to the landscape, moreover, was also to defer to the new anti-monumental sensibility shaping memorial design, as with the emphatically horizontal but poorly integrated scheme that landscape architect Lawrence Halprin recently had developed for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in West Potomac Park. (Halprin’s sprawling, episodic memorial would not be dedicated until 1997.) The VVMF’s design program, formulated in collaboration with its modernist competition adviser, Paul Spreiregen, accordingly hinged on five points: the memorial should be “contemplative and reflective,” harmonize with its site, include the names of the dead and missing, take no political stance on the war, and cost no more than $3 million (or about $8 million in today’s money) to build.
In her memoir, Lin describes her reaction when she and some classmates observed the glade in Constitution Gardens where the memorial would be situated during a Thanksgiving, 1980 break, months before she submitted her competition design:
I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth.
I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the initial cut would remain a pure flat surface in the earth with a polished, mirrored surface…
In the statement accompanying her entry, she elaborated on this initial impulse:
Walking through this park-like area, the memorial appears as a rift in the earth—a long, polished black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth.
Lin’s competition design displayed a pronounced affinity with site-specific minimalist art—especially Richard Serra’s Untitled, Pulitzer Piece: Stepped Elevation, an outdoor installation antedating her competition entry by a decade. It consists of a long, dark, flat steel form that emerges from and recedes into a gentle slope, much as the wings of her chevron do. Lin initially contemplated a sculptural arrangement of stone slabs in front of her chevron, but eliminated it as a result of a studio critique. Given the minimalist vocabulary, the way the names were listed was crucial, and here again studio criticism that she received affected her competition entry very significantly. She had intended to list the names in the order servicemen were killed or went missing from the tip of the chevron’s west wing (which would align with the Lincoln Memorial) to the opposite extremity. This arrangement would preclude numbing alphabetical successions of Joneses and Smiths.
But it would also deprive the vertex, the formal spine and center of gravity of her design, of essential significance. In her competition entry the names therefore start at the top and immediately to the right of the vertex under the inscribed year 1959, extend to the end of the right wing, then resume at the end of the left wing and terminate just to the left of the vertex and at the bottom of the last panel, where the year 1975 appears. In contrast to the Yale cenotaph, her entry lacked any indication of an honorific inscription.
Visitors would approach Lin’s memorial frontally, descending a grassy slope. The grass would run right up to the memorial. As described in her competition statement, the names would gradually come into view:
These names, seemingly infinite in number, convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals into a whole. For this memorial is meant not as a memorial to the individual, but rather as a memorial to the men and women who died during this war, as a whole.
Once visitors had descended to the vertex, which Lin referred to as the memorial’s “origin,” the two dates, too, would come into view, along with the thousands upon thousands of names receding into the distance on each side. As people turned to take their departure by the way they came, the neighboring monuments would come into view, “thus bringing the Vietnam Memorial into historical context,” Lin wrote.
As befit the postmodern temper of the day, the 1,421 entries—at the time the largest number ever garnered by a national memorial competition—were all over the map stylistically, and many of them were frankly bizarre. Most were submitted by students like Lin or recent graduates, and perhaps a quarter came from rank amateurs. A very large portion of the competition entries would have been rejected by the Federal review boards as too massive or intrusive. The entries’ most common trait is the more or less inept arrangement of name-bearing vertical forms: blocks, slabs, shafts, poles, upright or tilted pylons, stylized clothespins, mutant pyramids, translucent forms resembling faceted pencils, even classical columns.
The team headed by Burr, Lin’s professor, submitted a high-concept postmodern design with a colorful Pop-art inflection. It easily reads as carrying a strong anti-war message. Pink-granite-paved paths lined with a multitude of white name-bearing shafts radiate from a circular central plaza. The low shafts, star-shaped in plan, are mounted on square blue bases. In the plaza a white star is inscribed on a blue saucer-domed mass. The map of Vietnam within the star is seemingly impaled by Old Glory, which is planted at the border between North and South Vietnam. Entries also include a four-square triumphal arch; a flying saucer on stilts; a miniature airport terminal complete with control tower; a super-sized helmet and dogtags; a supersized pair of empty GI boots; a weird aviary form (presumably a dove) hovering over an eternal flame in a pool; a helicopter hovering over a clutch of trees. There are also many figurative sculptures ranging from realistic to expressionistic, with one of the most flamboyant showing a soldier wrestling with a dragon like Hercules with the Nemean lion. Soldiers helping Vietnamese children and soldiers ministering to or mourning over comrades are recurring motifs.
The simplicity and novelty of Lin’s concept won over the eight-member jury of veteran architects, sculptors and landscape designers. The statement accompanying her entry provided a cogent, jargon-free explanation of how her memorial would be experienced, though that statement, again, diverges significantly from the way it is experienced as built. Moreover, Lin’s design fully adhered to the competition program. And it was her great good fortune to have a jury of professionals that could make sense of her decidedly rudimentary pastel drawings.
Scruggs’s initial reaction to the winning design, as recorded in the book about the memorial he co-authored, was very different from the jury’s. The more legible third- and second-place entries, unveiled before Lin’s at a ceremony in the Andrews Air Force Base hangar where the jury had reviewed the competition submissions, apparently left him unprepared for what followed:
Then it came. A big bat. A weird-looking thing that could have been from Mars. Scruggs smiled. Maybe a third-grader had entered the competition and won. All the Fund’s work had gone into making a huge bat for veterans. […]
Silence hit. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds.
Then Scruggs’s colleague Wheeler—smitten with the idea of descending into, rather than stepping up to, the memorial—broke the uncomfortable silence by proclaiming, “This is a work of genius.” For his part, the most prominent member of the jury, architect Pietro Belluschi, only partially echoed Scruggs’s reaction in praising the winning submission, in an interview months after the jury’s decision, as “very naïve…more what a child will do than what a sophisticated artist would present. It was above the banal. It has the sort of purity of an idea that shines.”
Belluschi and his jury colleagues saw Lin’s minimalist design as inviting the visitor to find his or her own meaning in the memorial. To them it offered the hope—acutely disappointed in the short term, but largely fulfilled over the years—of removing the memorial project from the deeply divisive politics of the Vietnam War.
Though Lin’s design generated enormous media coverage and widespread media support, it was attacked by a vociferous cohort of Vietnam veterans whose influential allies included Perot, President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, and the writer Tom Wolfe. One of the most outspoken vets, Tom Carhart, reviled it during a public hearing as “insulting and demeaning: black instead of white, hidden in the ground instead of raised above it…a black gash of shame and sorrow.” The design’s opponents also resented the Fund’s failure to include Vietnam veterans on the competition jury.
But the opponents lacked support where they needed it most: the White House. Reagan’s top aides wanted to avoid public involvement in the memorial furor. They wanted a compromise that would assuage the VVMF’s antagonists. But in deference to the major veterans’ organizations, which consistently supported the Fund, they also wanted the Wall built on schedule.
In January 1982, the Fund and its opponents agreed, at the end of a raucous five-hour meeting chaired by Senator Warner, to add a figurative sculpture and a flagpole to the memorial. Perot and company wanted the flagpole above the Wall’s vertex, and the sculpture in front of it. Viewing the compromise as a political rather than an esthetic matter, as he repeatedly emphasized, Watt was willing to delay the Wall’s construction until he was certain that the opponents’ wishes would be fulfilled. But the location question was far from settled when the White House instructed him, in March, to issue the building permit so that the Wall could be completed in time for a Veterans Day dedication.
A few months after the dedication (which actually took place the weekend following Veterans Day as part of a five-day National Salute to Vietnam Veterans)—and soon after the White House had again ordered Watt to stand down—the Commission of Fine Arts decreed the placement of the sculpture and flagpole in an informally tree-framed entry plaza between the Lincoln Memorial and the Wall’s west wing. The plaza was far enough from the latter that the Wall could be experienced on its own terms. The VVMF’s leadership had suspected all along that the commission, which strongly supported Lin’s design, would reject the arrangement that its antagonists sought. The result, as already noted, was a precinct with a hybrid memorial—or even two distinct memorials. In other words, a place rather than a monument, though not the place that Lin had in mind, let alone the re-jiggered memorial her detractors sought.
Lin’s more ardent admirers have branded the VVMF’s compromise a betrayal, though it was unavoidable. Her antagonists considered themselves betrayed as well, though they did embrace the late sculptor Frederick Hart’s Three Servicemen, a slightly larger-than-life-size, realist portrayal of three soldiers, perhaps returning from patrol duty, who are placed so as to be looking toward Lin’s memorial, as if taking stock of the war’s toll. The figures might be taken for illustrations of the visitor’s own experience of the memorial. That is not what monumental sculpture is about. On the other hand, Hart—who had been part of a team that placed third in the competition—designed his sculpture to complement rather than clash with the Wall.
The Three Servicemen and the flagpole were dedicated two years after the Wall, which Watt himself said he found “beautiful” in a conversation with Scruggs. The VVMF wound up raising more than $8 million, mostly from individual donations, to build the memorial.
As a result of the controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it addresses two different cultures, even among the veterans themselves: the modern therapeutic culture heralded by the sociologist Philip Rieff in The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), on the one hand, and the community-oriented culture that honorific monuments have served from time immemorial on the other. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the therapeutic culture’s progenitor, having propagated the idea that while man is naturally good, civilization deforms him.
At least partly as a result of his study of PTSD, Jan Scruggs is an adherent of the therapeutic culture. “Let this memorial begin the healing process,” he proclaimed at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Wall. (His 1985 book about the memorial is entitled To Heal a Nation.) Healing, of course, is what therapy is all about. The VVMF calls its mobile, one-half-scale replica of Lin’s memorial, which has toured the country over the last two decades, the Wall that Heals.
Lin was not consciously concerned with engaging “the therapeutic” in designing her memorial. In experiencing it, she wrote in her competition statement,
We, the living, are brought to a concrete realization of these deaths.
Brought to a sharp awareness of such a loss, it is up to each individual to resolve or come to terms with this loss. For death is in the end a personal and private matter, and the area contained within this memorial is a quiet place meant for personal reflection and private reckoning.
As opposed to “a quiet place meant for healing.” In line with the therapeutic culture, however, Lin’s design concept addresses the visitor as an atomized individual or self confronting “a personal and private matter,” not as a member of a community whose survival depends on fealty to ideals that are external to and higher than the self. Far from embodying the presence of the Vietnam dead in the life of our nation, she intended the memorial to reflect their loss. And that’s surely what it does for many of us.
But the memorial is also experienced in ways Lin did not foresee. Touching the name of a loved one on the Wall has given some visitors a powerful sense of the loved one’s presence. The Wall, contrary to Lin’s competition statement, is very much a “memorial to the individual” as opposed to the Vietnam dead as a whole—at least as long as people with personal connections to the names are with us. Lin did not anticipate the emotional impact of these individual encounters with names when she designed the memorial, let alone the need for directories specifying their locations on the Wall. Such directories are situated near each end of the memorial.
It is also understandable that many veterans who saw themselves and their comrades as having honorably fulfilled their duty saw no symbol of their service to their country and the larger cause of freedom in that dark mirror. A highly decorated Marine like James Webb—an author and future U.S. senator who broke ranks with the VVMF—was unlikely to be moved, to put it mildly, by Lin’s “simple impulse to cut into the earth.”
Webb and other veterans expressed themselves very crudely on the artistic issues at hand, with Webb exalting “the white phallus that is the Washington Monument piercing the air like a bayonet.” But that doesn’t mean their visceral sense of disenfranchisement was unwarranted, especially when admirers as well as detractors have read the Wall as an anti-war memorial because it reduces the Vietnam conflict to a matter of loss on a terrible scale. Without the VVMF’s addition of honorific inscriptions—which Lin firmly opposed for a time, as if the very idea evoked that stodgy old Yale cenotaph—the Wall might indeed seem to treat the Vietnam dead, as the neoconservative commentator Charles Krauthammer put it in the New Republic, “like the victims of some monstrous traffic accident.”
The inscription alongside the year 1959 reads:
In honor of the men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War. The names of those who gave their lives and of those who remain missing are inscribed in the order they were taken from us.
For the record, the names of eight women are listed on the memorial. The inscription alongside 1975 reads:
Our nation honors the courage, sacrifice and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans. This memorial was built with private contributions from the American people. November 11, 1982
But there’s a more subtle and very important aspect to the Wall whose honorific import is as important as the inscriptions’. It also has nothing to do with Lin’s competition design. The circulation pattern she anticipated, as we’ve seen, had visitors approaching and leaving the memorial via the grassy slope in front. Visitors quickly turned that slope into a heap of soggy mulch, and the foot of the slope into a morass—despite the fact that the architect of record had installed a concrete gutter alongside the Wall that was covered by a narrow granite pavement. (A strip of grass still abutted the Wall.) Most visitors, however, approached the Wall not from the slope but from the Lincoln Memorial, and they created a new path in doing so. That circulation route suggested the location of the entry plaza with the sculpture and flagpole. A wide pavement now abuts Lin’s chevron and the slope is cordoned off.
Visitors thus approach the Wall from one end of the chevron or the other and experience the gradual descent to the vertex before ascending along the other wing. The panorama narrows on the way down and opens up during one’s ascent. Consistent with Lin’s competition concept, the vertex provides not only an emotional focal point but also an essential element of vertical integration to counteract the Wall’s emphatically horizontal character. The walk alongside the Wall, however, assumes a processional formality far removed from the grassy, naturalistic encounter Lin envisioned—a formality conducive, in some cases at least, to experiencing the names of the dead as a totality.
Over time, the Wall seems to have won over a number of once-skeptical veterans and conservatives—possibly even some stiff-upper-lip types temperamentally averse to tactile engagement with the names, not to speak of touchy-feely encounters with their reflected selves. This processional quality is an important reason.
Despite Lin’s bitterness over what she regarded as the unconscionable dilution of her design, she experienced a spectacular moment of vindication when she attended the Wall’s dedication, which drew an emotional crowd of more than 150,000 people. The Vietnam memorial’s powerful impact on countless Americans who have touched the names of lost comrades, husbands, fathers and sons while encountering their own reflections in the granite is the stuff of cultural legend. So, too, are the hundreds of thousands of mementoes—service medals, flags, flowers, scribbled messages, bottles of whisky—that have been left at the Wall, along with mementoes taken in the form of rubbings of names. Just as important, the Wall has moved legions of visitors with no connection to anyone who died in the war.
In 1994, the New York Times’s religion correspondent hailed the Wall as “something like a sacred shrine,” noting that it was attracting more visitors than the Lincoln Memorial. But things have changed. In 2015, the Vietnam memorial received about two-thirds as many visitors as the Lincoln. The perceived need to engage a younger demographic is the key factor in the VVMF’s plan for a 35,000-square-foot underground visitor center, the Education Center at the Wall, near the memorial.
This multi-media facility, budgeted at around $125 million, is to include a Wall of Faces with photographs of every casualty listed on Lin’s memorial, while providing a timeline-oriented documentary display about the Vietnam War, a selection from the mementoes left at the Wall that have been kept in storage, and a display devoted to the original memorial project. Scruggs and the VVMF have struggled to raise money for the facility, which was originally conceived more than fifteen years ago. The official groundbreaking ceremony took place late in 2012, but construction has yet to commence. The center would set a terrible precedent for Washington’s monumental core.
It’s not unusual, and indeed perfectly natural, for a memorial to gradually fade into the background as the event or personage it symbolizes recedes into the mists of time. Even so, it’s worth noting that Lin did not conceive the Wall with the long term—or to put it another way, with those yet to be born—in mind. She designed it for those who had actually lived through the trauma of war and loss.
As we have seen, monuments have been a cardinal expression of mankind’s identity for as long as culture has existed. Americans travel far and wide to visit landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore. And commemorative endeavors since the completion of Lin’s Vietnam memorial demonstrate that monumentality cannot be written off as a culturally obsolete desideratum. But it currently amounts to an ill-defined item on a deeply confused postmodern menu. The consequences, as with the ersatz-classical World War II Memorial on the Mall’s central axis, are there for all to see.
Moreover, the Wall may prove a wholly exceptional case. Minimalist forms and documentary data—rosters of names and chronological or otherwise factually-oriented arrangements—do not constitute a promising vocabulary for contemporary commemoration. A major indicator is the sprawling, unfocused 9/11 anti-monument at Ground Zero, where water plummets thunderously into the colossal abysses where the Twin Towers once stood and then pours down a couple of square drains. As a juror, Lin supported architect Michael Arad’s competition-winning design for this memorial, which dismally fails to convey any sense of national dignity or resolve. Even so, less extravagant memorials to calamity presumably will continue to be conceived along similar lines with therapeutic intent.
The other side of the coin is that the anti-monument is bound to enjoy limited purview. A remark in Lin’s memoir is telling in this respect:
I did not want to be typecast as a monument designer—in fact I used to dread it whenever some large-scale disaster would happen because I inevitably would get a fax about whether I could design a memorial to . . . which I would politely decline.
Translation: You don’t call Maya Lin if you won the war. And not only the World War II Memorial, with its preposterous plethora of pylons, but also the disgraceful Stalinist-kitsch-style, deep-relief portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which faces the Jefferson Memorial from across the Tidal Basin, and even Frank Gehry’s singularly unpopular opera buffa design for a Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial represent clueless attempts at monumentality. They all testify to the enduring need for the artistic competence the classical tradition has nurtured across the ages while accommodating itself to changing social and technological circumstances.
While the Vietnam memorial ranked tenth in the AIA poll mentioned at the outset of this essay, it was appropriately outranked by the Jefferson Memorial (which placed fourth) and the Lincoln (sixth). Those two monuments required far more artistic skill than the Wall, as did Lutyens’s Somme memorial and, yes, the Yale cenotaph.
But the Wall is an inspired work, if not “a work of genius.” In its stark simplicity and contextually astute insertion in the Mall’s landscape, it enabled a minimalist aesthetic that often repels the public to resonate deeply with it while signaling, as Lutyens’s Thiepval arch had done half a century earlier, a widening of the range of meanings and emotional responses that memorials can elicit.
Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, City Journal, First Things, Modern Age, National Review, the Weekly Standard and other publications. He is a co-founder and past chair of the National Civic Art Society.
Cover image: Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982), aerial view. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Homepage image: Vietnam Veterans Memorial model, shown in January 1982. Photo: AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi