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Visual Arts

Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans' Memorial
1980s

In 1979, Congress grants a Vietnam War veterans' committee the right to build a memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., dedicated to American soldiers killed in the conflict in Vietnam. The committee puts the design out for competition convening a blue-ribbon panel of architects, sculptors, and landscape architects to evaluate more than 1,400 submissions. When the winner is announced, no one is more surprised than the student architect herself, Maya Lin, a 20-year-old Yale undergraduate. The panel is moved by the simplicity, honesty, and power of Lin's design: a V-shaped, sunken wall of black stone, with the names of those killed in action engraved in chronological order. To search out a loved one, a mourner will walk along the monument and find the name among the 57,661 listed. Lin describes the Memorial thus: "I went to see the site. I had a general idea that I wanted to describe a journey...a journey that would make you experience death and where you'd have to be an observer, where you could never really fully be with the dead. It wasn't going to be something that was going to say, 'It's all right, it's all over,' because it's not."

Lin is young, a woman, and Asian-American, and her design lacks the realistic statuary of most war memorials. From the moment the design is publicized, a small group within the Vietnam Veterans' community feel Lin's statement is an affront. One opponent comments, "One needs no artistic education to see this memorial design for what it is: a black scar, in a hole, hidden as if out of shame." The protesters want to change the color of the wall to white and to add an eight-foot-high sculpture of wounded soldiers and a flag in a central position at the wall. While Lin and the committee count the American Legion among their supporters, the protesters secure the attention of then-radio broadcaster Patrick Buchanan and Congressman Henry Hyde. Hyde marshals Secretary of the Interior James Watt to issue an ultimatum: Lin's wall must be redesigned to include the suggested changes, or it will never be built.

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which has final say over the design, listens to arguments for and against Lin's wall. Claiming pragmatism, the commission finds a compromise. The wall will remain black, but it will include the statue and flag -- not at the center, but off to the side.

The Vietnam Veterans' Memorial is dedicated on Veterans' Day, 1982. There is general critical acclaim for the clarity of Lin's vision. The statue and flag are installed two years later, and in 1993, a second statue honoring women who served in Vietnam goes in alongside it. The Vietnam Veterans' Memorial is now the most widely visited monument in Washington, D.C. Lin continues to work successfully as a sculptor and designer in the U.S.

Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans' Memorial upset Vietnam veterans and others who felt it insulted the dead. View the Memorial?


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