Although ranked tenth in "America's Favorite Architecture
," compiled by the American Institute of Architects
, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- sometimes referred to as simply 'The Wall' - was the at the center of political and artistic controversy and opposition from the time of its announcement in 1981. The Wall, situated in Constitution Gardens
adjacent to the National Mall
, is "...often referred to as the veterans 3rd battle. The 1st being survival in Vietnam. The 2nd, was dealing with the rejection experienced upon returning home from war. And, the 3rd, building the Wall."
The Memorial consists of two walls sunken into the landscape and arranged in a chevron shape: the East wall (facing the Washington Monument) and the West wall (facing the Lincoln Memorial). Each wall is a giant black slab measuring 246 feet 9 inches (75.21 meters) long, the total length measuring 493 feet 6 inches (150.42 meters)
. The polished, highly reflective stone is black granite sourced from Bangalore, India
-- at the time, one of only three known places in the world where it was possible to source pieces of granite this large. Inscribed by machine are the names of service members who were either confirmed to be KIA (Killed in Action) or remained classified as MIA (Missing in Action) when the walls were constructed in 1982.
The font used was Optima
, and symbols next to names are used to describe the status of each individual. (Further information about the technical specifications
of The Wall.). The names are arranged chronologically, not alphabetically, as was specified in the original proposal.
The Wall was designed by Maya Lin
, who was a 21 year old Yale senior architecture student at the time. As she tells in the documentary, "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
" (brief trailer
), she was creating a course on funerary architecture, and one day a student came in with a flyer about the competition to design a Vietnam memorial in Washington D.C. She thought, "what a great idea!"
More generally, Maya Lin has explained, "My sculptures deal with naturally occurring phenomenon.
" In the same PBS video clip
, she can be seen working in her studio and on site, discussing her approach to creating a piece, and the seeming conflict between her roles as monument architect and artist.
Among the many controversies
surrounding the proposed design and construction of The Wall, Tom Carhart's impassioned plea
stands out. On October 13, 1981, at The Commission of Fine Arts
meeting (where Lin can be seen in the footage sitting in the audience), Carhart speaks of being spat on in an airport when returning from service in Vietnam, explains why he objects to the design, and calls Lin's proposal for the Memorial "a black scar." Carhart wanted the VVMF committee to re-open the selection process for the design contest and have a panel consisting of exclusively of Vietnam veterans to determine the winning proposal (The entire statement to the U.S. Fine Arts commission in PDF format
Many at the time objected to the memorial's stark, minimalist nature, favoring a more traditional memorial that was perceived as more dignified and appropriate. James Webb commented on the design:
"I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone." Ross Perot, an early supporter of the memorial and major financial contributor, withdrew his support after seeing the proposed memorial, and James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, refused to issue a building permit.
Maya Lin herself received harassment regarding her ethnicity and believes that if the competition had not been "blind", with designs submitted by number instead of name, she "never would have won".
From the documentary already linked, and included in this dissertation's
footnote: "it took me months to realize that obviously a lot of people were going to be offended that the creator of the American Vietnam Veterans is not only not a veteran, but she is a she, she is an Asian...
" (footnote 309
, pg. 200, "Remembering Through the Corpus: The Intersection of (Moving) Bodies with Architecture at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
In the end, so radical was Lin's design for a memorial that a more traditional component was agreed upon as part of a compromise
. This piece, a bronze sculpture in the Iron Mike
tradition by Frederick Hart
(titled The Three Soldiers
) is situated across from (and appears to be looking at) The Wall. Lin was not happy about this addition to her original vision.
Elizabeth Wolfson summarizes the difficulties that memorial architecture presents:
"As memorials are objects of public commemoration, we demand a lot of them. They serve as testaments to lives lost, as repositories of grief, and to facilitate processes of mourning. We expect them to do the work of history writing, to draw single comprehensible narratives out of a Gorgon's nest of individual, often contradictory, experiences. These meanings serve as unifying forces, reinforcing the idea of a shared national identity and healing rifts in the communal experience of nationhood.
By endowing memorials with the ability to accomplish these tasks, we bestow them with an extraordinary amount of power and authority. Thus, it is unsurprising that the first skirmish of the culture wars of the 1980s can be traced back to the public debate that broke out in reaction to Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
" (The "Black Gash of Shame": Revisiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Controversy
The Wall was funded by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund
(VVMF) and the money raised through private donations. The principal founder, Jan Scruggs
, is a Vietnam veteran who was inspired to create the fund partially by the 1978 film The Deer Hunter
The other principal founder of the VVMF was Jack Wheeler
, who was chairman of the non-profit organization from 1979 to 1989. He supported Maya Lin's then-controversial design, which was opposed by Ross Perot
and Jim Webb
, who tried to oust him as chairman of the memorial
. Wheeler, in a compromise, agreed to the addition of The Three Soldiers
, mentioned above, and an American flag.
To this day the U.S. National Parks Service
collects items left at The Wall. Visitors commonly leave hand-written notes and sentiments, rubbings from the names, Prisoner of War/Missing in Action commemorative bracelets, uniforms and bits of uniforms, including boots, and according to a top ten list
In November 2012, all 58, 283 of the names were read out loud at the Wall
- the fifth time this has been done (previous years: 1982, 1992, 2002 and 2007). The timing was coordinated to complete the reading just prior to Veteran's Day. Some of the readers' profiles at Military.com
In 2009, the Memorial had 4,437,771 visitors
, and " is still far and away the greatest memorial of modern times — the most beautiful, the most heart-wrenching, the most subtle, and the most powerful.
Jan Scruggs has stated more recently about the Memorial:
"The idea of having all these names permanently displayed in Washington a few blocks from the White House, a block from the State Department, down the street from the US Congress — to me, this was poetic justice. These were the people everyone wanted to forget. They wanted this whole thing to go away, and I didn't want it to go away.
Donation page for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF)
| Information on The Wall That Heals
| Further reading
| Alternative Reading List
| Documentary: Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision