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Redefining the Form of Commemorative Monuments

This article explores the storied design of and intention behind Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial melds form and function to honor every soldier while also activating visitors’ experience in an intimate way.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982, National Mall, Washington D.C.

The form of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a granite sculpture that extends horizontally, an abstract shape in striking contrast to the elevated, pedestal-based commemorative war monument. Maya Lin’s design is long with a subtle v-like shape and is relatively low with its highest point at 10 feet. It is devoid of figurative elements; rather, it features the name of every Vietnam soldier etched into one side of the surface along which is a walkway for visitors to stroll or stand, read and contemplate.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982, National Mall, Washington D.C.

This unusual design was met with outrage when it was revealed, and Lin, who is of Chinese-American heritage and at the time still an undergraduate student at Yale, was the target of both sexist and racist attacks. Critics felt her design lacked the visual spectacle of other war monuments, and that the low height was demeaning and even disrespectful of the sacrifice made by soldiers and their families. It didn’t seem heroic.

Ironically, listing all of the names was a requirement that the veterans’ organization stipulated, which Lin honored and made central to her design. However, U.S. President Reagan and several high-level political appointees pushed hard for traditional figurative sculpture, believing elevated figures should be at the apex of Lin’s abstract design. A compromise came in the form of a figurative sculpture placed outside of the main structure, not directly connected to the flow of the granite form.

Over time, as people visited the monument and saw the names of each soldier, locating a loved one by name, public sentiment began to change. The design of the monument invites visitors to walk along its length, locate and even touch an etched name – a moving and impactful experience that provides space for personal grieving and contemplation. The type size is such that one cannot take in all 58,000 names at once, but must read like a book. People began to make rubbings of individual names using paper and pencil in direct contact with the surface of the monument, creating a tangible record of the monument to take away with them.

A man uses a piece of paper and a pencil to make a rubbing of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Listing every soldier honors each of them without giving priority to rank in terms of the order or visual hierarchy. Lin chose to list the names chronologically starting from the center at 1959 moving to the right, then continuing back around at the left side and moving to the apex/center at 1973, completing the timeline of the war in a circular way. When interviewed on the design, Lin notes that she didn’t want a wall or a massive heavy structure. In fact, she wasn’t thinking of it as a “wall” or even as the structure being an object – but the names themselves being the object. She has stated that she wanted it to be “paper thin” – didn’t want it to read like an insertion into the earth rather a cut or edge to the earth, “cutting into earth, a violence and a healing.”

The reflective surface which holds the names has a mirror effect – which to Lin creates two worlds, one we are a part of and one we cannot enter, a connection between living and dead. Lin also felt the reflective surface allows for reflection of one’s sorrow, giving space for personal grieving, which she feels is the role of a commemorative monument.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982, National Mall, Washington D.C.

At the memorial site, located at the National Mall in Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, Lin placed the structure so that looking in one direction visitors see the Lincoln Memorial and in the other direction, the Washington Monument, sites of national historical importance, intentionally connecting past and present. This once vilified monument is now one of the most visited sites in Washington D.C.

What commemorative monuments have you seen that you would consider non-traditional in form? Please share your experience with your fellow learners in the comments area below.

To see Maya Lin’s recent commemorative project, visit the interactive website What Is Missing? and read a discussion and analysis of What is Missing?.

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