Vietnam Veterans Memorial: And the Winner Is....

01
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In the Shadow of the Washington Monument

Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Washington Monument
Maya Lin's Design Realized, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Washington Monument. Photo by Hisham Ibrahim / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images (cropped)

For the millions of people who visit each year, Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall sends a chilling message about war, heroism, and sacrifice. But the memorial might not exist in the form we see today if it weren't for the support of architects who defended the young architect's controversial design.

In 1981, Maya Lin was completing her studies at Yale University by taking a seminar on funeral architecture. The class adopted the Vietnam Memorial competition for their final class projects. After visiting the Washington, DC site, Lin's sketches took form. She has said that her design "almost seemed too simple, too little." She tried embellishments, but they were distractions. "The drawings were in soft pastels, very mysterious, very painterly, and not at all typical of architectural drawings."

Sources for this Article: Making the Memorial by Maya Lin, The New York Review of Books, November 2, 2000; Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Library of Congress; Celebrating Those Who are Seldom Recognized by Paul W. Welch, Jr., AIA Forum, February 28, 2011; Making the Memorial by Maya Lin, The New York Review of Books, November 2, 2000 [accessed May 22, 2014]. Transcription by Jackie Craven from the LOC poster TIFF file.

02
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Maya Lin's Abstract Design Sketches

Detail sketch from Maya Lin's poster entry for Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Detail sketch from Maya Lin's poster entry for Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Image courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, digital file from original

Today when we look at Maya Lin's sketches of abstract forms, comparing her vision with what became the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, her intention seems clear. For the competition, however, Lin needed words to accurately express her design ideas.

An architect's use of words to express the meaning of a design is often as important as a visual representation. To communicate a vision, the successful architect often will use both writing and sketching, because sometimes a picture is not worth a thousand words.

03
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Entry Number 1026: Maya Lin's Words and Sketches

Maya Lin's poster entry for Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 4 sketches plus one page description
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Competition Poster, Entry Number 1026, included 4 sketches and a 1 page description. Image courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, digital file from original. Select image to open larger view.

Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was simple—perhaps too simple. She knew that she needed words to explain her abstractions. The 1981 competition was anonymous and presented on poster board back then. Entry 1026, which was Lin's, included abstract sketches and a one-page description.

Lin has said that it took longer to write this statement than to draw the sketches. "The description was critical to understanding the design," she said, "since the memorial worked more on an emotional level than a formal level."  This is what she said.

Lin's One Page Description:

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. Approaching the memorial, the ground slopes gently downward, and the low walls emerging on either side, growing out of the earth, extend and converge at a point below and ahead. Walking into the grassy site contained by the walls of this memorial, we can barely make out the carved names upon the memorial's walls. 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 monument to the individual, but rather as a memorial to the men and women who died during this war, as a whole.
The memorial is composed not as an unchanging monument, but as a moving composition, to be understood as we move into and out of it; the passage itself is gradual, the descent to the origin slow, but it is at the origin that the meaning of this memorial is to fully understood. At one intersection of these walls, on the right side, at this wall's top is carved the date of the first death. It is followed by the names of those who have died in the war, in chronological order. These names continue on this wall, appearing to recede into the earth at the wall's end. The names resume on the left wall, as the wall emerges from the earth, continuing back to the origin, where the date of the last death is carved, at the bottom of this wall. Thus the war's beginning and end meet; the war is "complete", coming full circle, yet broken by the earth that bounds the angle's open side, and contained within the earth itself. As we turn to leave, we see these walls stretching into the distance, directing us to the Washington Monument to the left and the Lincoln Memorial to the right, thus bringing the Vietnam Memorial into historical context. 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. The black granite walls, each 200 feet long, and 10 feet below ground at their lowest point (gradually ascending towards ground level) effectively act as a sound barrier, yet are of such a height and length so as not to appear threatening or enclosing. The actual area is wide and shallow, allowing for a sense of privacy and the sunlight from the memorial's southern exposure along with the grassy park surrounding and within its wall contribute to the serenity of the area. Thus this memorial is for those who have died, and for us to remember them.
The memorial's origin is located approximately at the center of this site; it legs each extending 200 feet towards the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The walls, contained on one side by the earth are 10 feet below ground at their point of origin, gradually lessening in height, until they finally recede totally into the earth at their ends. The walls are to be made of a hard, polished black granite, with the names to be carved in a simple Trojan letter, 3/4 inch high, allowing for nine inches in length for each name. The memorial's construction involves recontouring the area within the wall's boundaries so as to provide fo an easily accessible descent, but as much of the site as possible should be left untouched (including trees). The area should be made into a park for all the public to enjoy.

The committee who chose her design was hesitant and dubious. The problem was not with Lin's beautiful and poignant ideas, but her drawings were vague and ambiguous.

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"A Rift in the Earth"

Angled form, a sketch from Maya Lin's poster entry for Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Angled geometric form sketch from Maya Lin's poster entry for Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Image courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, digital file from original

Back in the early 1980s, Maya Lin never intended to enter the design competition for the Vietnam Memorial. For her, the design problem was a class project at Yale University. But she did enter, and, from 1,421 submissions, the committee chose Lin's design.

 After winning the competition, Lin retained the established firm of Cooper Lecky Architects as architect of record. She also got some help from architect/artist Paul Stevenson Oles. Both Oles and Lin had submitted proposals for a new Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C, but the committee's interest was with Lin's design.

Steve Oles redrew Maya Lin's winning entry to clarify her intent and explain her submission. Cooper Lecky helped Lin battle design modifications and materials. Brigadier General George Price, an African-American four star general, publicly defended Lin's choice of black. Groundbreaking for the controversial design eventually took place on March 26, 1982.

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Maya Lin's 1982 Memorial Design

Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo by mike black photography / Moment / Getty Images (cropped)

After the groundbreaking, more controversy ensued. The placement of the statue was NOT part of Lin's design, yet vocal groups demanded the more conventional monument. In the midst of heated debate, then AIA President Robert M. Lawrence argued that Maya Lin's memorial had the power to heal the divided nation. He lead the way to a compromise that preserved the original design while also providing for the nearby placement of a more conventional sculpture that opponents wanted.

Opening ceremonies took place November 13, 1982. "I think it is actually a miracle that the piece ever got built," Lin has said.

For anyone who thinks that the process of architectural design is an easy one, think of the young Maya Lin. Simple designs are often the most difficult to present and realize. And then, after all of the battles and compromises, the design is given to the built environment.

It was a strange feeling, to have had an idea that was solely yours be no longer a part of your mind but totally public, no longer yours.—Maya Lin, 2000

Learn More:

  • To see Paul Stevenson Oles' drawings, go to Drawings for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the Library of Congress
  • Read more about Robert M. Lawrence, FAIA: Celebrating Those Who are Seldom Recognized by Paul W. Welch, Jr., AIA Forum, February 28, 2011
  • How Architects Write by Tom Spector and Rebecca Damron, Routledge, 2012
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  • Boundaries by Maya Lin, Simon & Schuster, 2006. In this book, the architect describes her creative process and discusses what happened after her controversial design was chosen for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
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  • Maya Lin - A Strong Clear Vision, written and directed by Freida Lee Mock (DVD)
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