The memorial designed by American architect Maya Lin was one of the entries of a competition held in 1981 to select a proposition for the same. The idea of the memorial came from a Vietnam Veteran by the name Jack Scruggs to bring honor and respect to the veterans. The bill for the memorial was signed by President Jimmy Carter on the 1st of July 1980. The memorial was made by private contributions rather than tax money and no architect hired to avoid political controversies.
Lin was an undergraduate, in her final year at Yale University at that time. She once recalled that she received a B grade in her design, but her faculty urged her to put it as an entry for the contest.
The structure is on National Mall, Washington D.C., situated between the Washington Monument in the east and Lincoln Memorial to the west. Each of the walls faced them respectively. The initial site and landscape consisted of a gently rolling hill.
The form resembles a wound and symbolizes the pain caused by the American- Vietnamese War. In one of her interviews, she said, “I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, deeper and deeper, opening it up, and with time, that initial violence and pain would heal” She sought to unite the memorial with the nation’s past, bringing together the past and present.
The design consists of a black granite wall made with highly reflective slabs, with the names of 57,939 departed and missing soldiers inscribed on it. The order in which the names were written was one reason she won the contest. The names of the soldiers were written in the chronological order of their time of death. It made it easier to find their names, rather than arranging them alphabetically or by their hometowns, like a diary entry. The men that fought together died together, will always be together.
The names start at the center of the memorial, rather than either of the ends. The names of the first and the last people who died could be together and this was Lin’s way of symbolically bringing closure to America’s longest war. There was no reference given to any soldier’s rank, race, religion or branch of service. The names of soldiers who were dead had a diamond symbol by their name and those missing in action had a plus symbol.
The color black was chosen, not as a symbol of defeat, but to symbolically represent the earth. Granite was chosen since it could withstand the tests at the time. If one stands before it reading the name of the soldiers, they could see themselves, which is a very emotional experience. Lin quotes, ” Every culture becomes much more reflective as it ages”. The name is an abstraction, which means more than a picture. It was much more powerful and left an everlasting impression.
The reflectivity resembles a mirror, and only the names seem to have substance. ‘It creates the illusion of life after death’ said Lin in an interview. It also made an illusion of the scale of the park, doubling in size. The structure’s thin walls are partially sunken into the ground.
As one moves down towards the center, the path widens and the structure rises more than 10ft above. The granite slabs used for construction are 75m each. Visitors feel three emotions over others, overwhelmed, intimate, and peaceful. The panelists who chose her design recalled that it was a simple design where earth, the sky, and remembered names met.
The idea initially met with criticism for its radical nature and minimalism which was in sharp contrast to traditional heroic memorials. The monument is stripped away from its representational properties, unlike its predecessors, where one hero would lead an army. Her design did not sway by political agendas and stood tall with the emotions of people in mind.
This political baggage did not allow her to experiment with black granite from Canada or Sweden, which are well-known locations for the same. She finally settled with Indian black granite. Her winning entry was termed as ‘a black gash of shame’ by many newspapers and critics of the time.
A city where public buildings were made of white stone and marble, the consideration was black granite was met with resistance. To pacify protests across the board of Vietnam War veterans, a naturalistic sculpture of three Vietnamese soldiers was added beside the monument. This sculpture felt powerful, more public than the parent monument, and less intimate. Along with the sculpture, a 60-foot pole mounted by the American was placed near the memorial. But restrictive proximity was maintained to respect Lin’s artistic vision.
The memorial was first open for the public on November 11, 1982. Since then, the monument welcomes an average footfall of ten thousand people every day. The memorial received the 25-year award from the American Institute of Architects in 2007.