Maya Lin was a young, 21-year old college student when her design for a new memorial to honor those who served in Vietnam was selected from among 1,400 competitors. The choice, made by a committee appointed for the purpose of conducting such a competition and selecting a winning entry, was very controversial at the time, with some veterans, political activists, and others critical of the concept of a wall listing the names of those killed in action during that long, divisive conflict. Seen as a political statement against U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, those critics derided it, in the words of one, as a “black gash of shame and sorrow.” While public reaction, including among veterans and their survivors, has proven the critics wrong in the years since its completion, Lin’s concept remains a fascinating and emotionally evocative contribution to the architecture of the national mall in Washington, D.C.
The process by which Maya Lin brought her concept to reality begins, of course, with its genesis, as the Yale architecture student contemplated designs in the abstract. As Lin herself has written,
“The design emerged from an architectural seminar I was taking during my senior year. The initial idea of a memorial had come from a notice posted at the school announcing a competition for a Vietnam veterans memorial. The class, which was on funereal architecture, had spent the semester studying how people, through the built form, express their attitudes toward death. As a class, we thought the memorial was an appropriate design idea for our program, so we adopted it as our final design project.” [Maya Lin, “Making the Memorial,” The New York Review of Books, November 2, 2000]
In preparing for the competition, Lin studied numerous memorials from the world wars and other conflicts. She also drew upon her observations of the rotunda at Yale University, where she was studying, where the names of Yale graduates killed in wars were listed. Once again in her own words:
“I had never been able to resist touching the names cut into these marble walls, and no matter how busy or crowded the place is, a sense of quiet, a reverence, always surrounds those names. Throughout my freshman and sophomore years, the stonecutters were carving in by hand the names of those killed in the Vietnam War, and I think it left a lasting impression on me. . .the sense of the power of a name.”
Lin’s process for bringing her concept of a memorial to fruition also reflected the influences that helped shape her vision of what architecture should be. The influences from her artistically-minded parents, particularly her father, the dean of the School of Art at the University of Ohio, combined with the impressions she developed from observing the hills around her childhood home, including Native American burial grounds, imbued in her a strong sense that structures should fit into the surrounding landscapes rather than emerge as artificial impositions on those landscapes. That her design was selected from among those 1,400 submissions for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was the opening she needed to transform her vision to reality.
[Sources of information, in addition to the above referenced article, include “Maya Lin,” Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts, www.prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/lin/; www.mayalin.com/; and www.pbs.org/becomingamerican/ap_pjourneys_bio5.html]