Many know about it. Approximately 3 million visitors visit it each year but did you know how it came to be?
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC honors those in the U.S. armed forces who fought in the Vietnam War and those who died in service or were unaccounted for as missing-in-action (MIA). The 3-acre national memorial consists of three separate parts: the Three Servicemen Memorial, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and the most well-known part, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
Soon after choosing and authorizing the site in 1980, Congress announced a design competition for the memorial which would award the winner a prize of $50,000 along with the honor of designing the park.
By the end of the year, 2,573 registered for the design competition but in March of 1981, only 1,421 designs were ultimately submitted. The designs were displayed for a selection committee at an airport hangar at Andrews Air Force Base. The entries were displayed in rows covering more than 35,000 square feet of floor space. The entries were kept anonymous and identified by number only. All entries were examined and narrowed down to 232, then 39. The final choice was number 1026. The artist was American architect Maya Lin.
Their was a lot of controversy over Maya’s winning design. The design was unconventional, and others didn’t like its black color and lack of ornamentation. H. Ross Perot and James Webb, two prominent early supporters of the project, withdrew their support once they saw the design. Perot was in favor of incorporating bronze figurative sculpture in the heroic tradition. Webb found it mundane and was quoted as saying, “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone.”
I understand that, but if it’s too plain, boring, and nihilistic, why did it win?
As someone who has walked through the memorial, I’ll tell you why. It’s not just a memorial, it’s an experience. The same experience that the selection committee experienced.
The two perpendicular walls are made of Gabbro, a dense, dark rock which is formed when molten magma gets trapped and cools beneath the Earth’s surface. The color of Gabbro is a deep dark black. The long black walls are etched with the names of the honored servicemen in panels of horizontal rows in contrasting color. The walls are sunk into the ground, with the earth behind them. As you begin walking you see the names start to list down by your feet. As you continue to walk, you feel like you are going down into the ground while the walls creep up and the names rise higher. The black rock behind the engraved names is fitting as you can’t help but begin to mourn for those lost to war. Walk further and the wall overcomes you as the names of fallen brothers, sons and fathers rise above your head literally drowning you in the names of loved ones lost. At the highest point or apex where the walls meet, they are over 10 feet high (or you are over 10 feet below). As you walk through to the end, the wall begins to fall again and you rise out of the ground. Symbolically, this has been described as a “wound that is closed and healing.”
The purpose of art is experience. It’s to give you a feeling. Sometimes art can spark a memory or take you inside the head of the artist to convey what the artist was feeling at the time the art was created. Perhaps it brings back a feeling you forgot, or a feeling you need help to feel again. My 2¢? If the art does not make you feel anything, it’s not good art. Lin’s memorial is one of the best pieces of art I have ever experienced and I encourage everyone to make a point to experience it when in our nation’s capital.
In the end, opponents of Lin’s design fought to place a sculpture of three soldiers (the third place design by Frederick Hart) at the apex of the wall’s two sides. Lin objected vehemently to this, arguing that making the soldiers the focal point of the memorial would lessen the impact and meaning of the wall. Gosh, she was so right. In the end, a compromise was reached, and Frederick Hart’s sculpture was placed off to one side to minimize the impact of the addition on Lin’s design.
Happy Veterans Day to those who loved America enough to lay down their lives.